PENSACOLA — In conservative Pensacola, Sara Latshaw feared her monthslong campaign to get the City Council to recognize domestic partnerships was about to fail.
Looking at 17 scheduled speakers during a public discussion just before the December 2013 vote, she knew 10 were supporters but didn't know the others.
"I assumed the other seven were going to speak against it and thought maybe we were sunk," said Latshaw, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's northwest Florida office and organizer of the domestic registry campaign in this Republican stronghold with a large, active, retired military presence.
To Latshaw's surprise, all 17 speakers supported the registry, and the measure passed, 8-1. Casting the lone vote against, council President Jewel Cannada-Wynn said during the meeting that same-sex marriage "undermines the very fiber of our culture, that is marriage and the family unit."
Latshaw and other Florida gay rights activists say the support for the measure was just one example of how rapidly attitudes toward the gay and lesbian community have softened in the state's most conservative region — changes that bode well for a statewide push for gay marriage.
The state Supreme Court is likely to consider challenges to the state ban in the next year if a federal appeals court doesn't rule first. Recent federal court decisions have upheld same-sex marriage laws in numerous states, and national polls show increasing support for same-sex marriage.
Pensacola seems an unlikely hotbed for such changes in attitudes.
Known for its sprawling Navy base and gleaming white-sand beaches, the far-western Panhandle town of 53,000 is also known nationally for a string of abortion clinic bombings and shootings in the 1980s and early 1990s, the fundamentalist Pensacola Christian College, and the acclaimed 2006 Academy Award-nominated documentary Jesus Camp, which chronicles the experiences of children at a charismatic Christian summer camp. In 1994 a Pensacola judge granted custody of a child to a convicted murderer rather than to the child's lesbian mother, declaring that the child should live in a "non-lesbian world."
Ted Traylor, pastor of the 9,000-member Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, said his congregation considers gay marriage a violation of natural law, state law and Biblical law.
"I have noticed a swing in attitudes in the area, though," he said.
Today, Pensacola is the only Florida city west of Tallahassee to approve a domestic registry. It gives gay and lesbian couples specific rights within the city's boundaries, including hospital visitation, health care decisions, and funeral and burial decisions for their partners.
"The Panhandle is the Deep South, and the Deep South is changing," said Nadine Smith, president of Equality Florida.
On Tuesday, federal judges in Arkansas and Mississippi overturned those states' bans on gay marriage, declaring them unconstitutional. As with several other states, those rulings are on hold pending appeal and likely will be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Several southern states — though not Florida — have been targeted by the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign in a series of groundbreaking television commercials, direct-mail messages and phone-bank operations to promote equality and legal protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people.
Kimberly Brill, 44, was raised in the Panhandle's fundamentalist Christian community but parted with her evangelical church after she came out as a lesbian in 1996.
Brill said she has witnessed enormous changes in the area's attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
"The climate where when I came out in 1996 was stifling, it wasn't good," she said. "I experienced a lot of things back then as far as hatred and discrimination."
But "time has a way of healing," Brill added.
Brill and her partner, Meredith Taylor, were among the first couples to be registered as domestic partners when the registry began in March.
Taylor, who moved to Pensacola several years ago after living in San Francisco, said she has noticed changing attitudes even in the short time she has lived in the Panhandle.
Smith of Equity Florida grew up in the central Panhandle town of Panama City. She said changes in the Panhandle are a positive sign for the future of gay marriage statewide and nationally.
The fact that the military now allows gays and lesbians to serve openly has helped change minds in the heavily military region, said Smith, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Another factor is simple economics, she said.
Businesses lose talented gay and lesbian workers, who move elsewhere if they do not feel comfortable in a community, and businesses from outside the region might hesitate to relocate to an area that isn't welcoming to their gay and lesbian employees, she said.