Florida is home to over 100,000 transgender adults, according to a 2016 study. Under new federal rules, any one of them working in a government office could be fired from their job for being transgender.
That's the worry of LGBTQ advocates — and the reality for many Floridians — in the wake of a series of proposed federal changes by the Trump administration. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in an October 2017 memo that "prohibition on sex discrimination…does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity" under the Civil Rights Act. One year later, the Trump administration is considering ending the recognition of transgender people altogether in federal rules.
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The new rules by the Trump administration could mean the dissolution of the last line of legal defense against workplace discrimination for Floridians who are a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth. But to many in the LGBTQ community, the problem goes beyond a lack of legal protections for trans Floridians. Advocates have argued for years that Florida lacks statewide anti-discrimination protections for all LGBTQ citizens. With no state or federal protections in place, LGBTQ Floridians are left to rely on local anti-discrimination ordinances to protect them from public discrimination.
"That Swiss cheese approach is not what we should be doing as a country," said Nathan Bruemmer, a local LGBTQ advocate who's organizing a "Transgender Support Rally" in St. Petersburg on Saturday.
The state's lack of anti-discrimination protections is one of the reasons why advocates — and recent history — say the 2018 elections could play a huge role in shaping the future of LGBTQ rights in Florida.
In particular, the next governor could do two major things to end anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the public arena, advocates say. He could sign the Competitive Workforce Act, a law, or sign an executive order with similar language banning discrimination in state offices and public housing.
"The support in Tallahassee for statewide nondiscrimination protections has been strong and bipartisan for years," said Nadine Smith, the co-founder and CEO of Equality Florida, one of the state's largest LGBTQ rights advocacy groups. "The problem really has boiled down to leadership's unwillingness to let the bill move."
When it comes to LGBTQ issues, Florida's Legislature does not seem to have the socially conservative bent of some Republican-led states. The Competitive Workforce Act was among the bills with the most cosponsors during last year's legislative session, with plenty of support coming from the Republican side of the aisle. And there is a lobbying group, Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality, that is dedicated to rallying Republican support for the CWA's passage.
Republicans who support the bill say workplace protections make the state more free and a more attractive place for large businesses to set up shop.
"From the Republican end, it's about freedom to be who you are and liberty," said Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, the CWA's Florida House sponsor. "I mean those are two huge components of the platform."
But many statewide advocates looking to find a champion of LGBTQ rights in the next governor say they're still hoping for Democrat Andrew Gillum to get elected this November.
"If we end up with (Republican) Ron DeSantis as the governor, I can only hope. But I can tell you, from the signals that he's sending now on the campaign trail, it doesn't seem like it's likely (he'll support the CWA)," said Tony Lima, the executive director of SAVE, another influential LGBTQ rights group — of which Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality is a part. "And that's why as an organization, we've endorsed Andrew Gillum."
In October, the Times sent a list of questions to both gubernatorial campaigns asking the candidates how they would handle LGBTQ issues in Florida, including the Competitive Workforce Act. Gillum's campaign pointed to, among other things, the Tallahassee mayor's history of advocating for same-sex marriage rights. The campaign said Gillum would sign the CWA and the executive order banning workplace discrimination in state offices and public housing.
DeSantis' campaign sent back a one sentence statement: "Ron DeSantis believes everyone should be treated equally. As Governor, he will not tolerate discrimination of any kind."
Gov. Rick Scott, the current Republican governor, has long argued that current state anti-discrimination protections are adequate. When asked for comment, his office pointed to federal guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that say that discrimination in government offices against workers based on their sexuality or gender identity is illegal.
But the Trump administration is working to undermine some of those very rules, and they've never applied to private places of business. That's why advocates on both sides of the aisle say more robust anti-discrimination rules are needed. (The CWA proposed last Legislative session included a carve out for some small businesses and religious institutions.)
In particular, Raschein, the Republican state representative, said it's important not to leave transgender Floridians without legal protections.
"A lot of people want us to get rid of the T (in LGBTQ). And we can't get rid of the T, because once we exclude transgender people, we can't get it back," Raschein said.
Democratic Rep. Carlos G. Smith, Florida's first openly gay Latino state House representative, said ending public discrimination is just one issue of concern to LGBTQ Floridians. Banning conversion therapy, ending discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, fighting violence against transgender Floridians and erecting a memorial to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting are also issues that are on the minds of many activists this election cycle.
"The gay agenda is what's on the table, which is go to work, go to the store, serve our country and not be discriminated against," Smith said.