TALLAHASSEE — Activists who support new civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians have found key allies in Republican lawmakers — but their cause still faces challenges in a deeply conservative state Capitol.
Fifteen GOP lawmakers have publicly signed onto legislation this session that would ban discrimination against LGBT people in employment, housing, restaurants and other businesses, bucking a party whose national platform in 2016 opposed gay marriage.
"I believe that people should be treated equally in our country," said state Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, who sponsored legislation banning discrimination. "This is just another step in making sure everybody has equality. Whether it's in the workforce, in housing, in any aspect of our lives, there's no reason why we shouldn't have equality."
North Carolina and Mississippi in recent years have passed anti-LGBT measures. Texas this year is advancing a controversial bathroom bill that would limit access to transgender people. Yet Florida activists are heartened by their improved odds for going in the opposite direction and broadening protections. Republicans who don't support expanding LGBT protections still outnumber those who do, but activists are finding support from a growing number of conservative lawmakers that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.
Back then, there were no Republican co-sponsors of antidiscrimination language in either the House or the Senate. Among the 15 who have signed on this year is Dana Young.
As House majority leader last year, the Tampa Republican became one of the most prominent Republicans to back protections for the LGBT community. Now a state senator, she's signed on as a co-sponsor to similar legislation (SB 666/HB 623) this year.
Dubbed the Competitive Workforce Act by a coalition of business groups and social activists, the bill would treat sexual orientation and gender identity similarly to race, sex and religion in the state's civil rights laws. No longer could an employer fire or refuse to hire someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Businesses like hotels, restaurants and shops could not turn LGBT people away, and landlords could not reject a renter's application.
Though her support for greater protections came five years into her legislative service, at a time she was considering a run for a swing Senate district, Young said her support is personal, not political.
"I'm a mother of two teenage daughters with a lot of friends in the LGBT community, and I want to support not only my children but their friends and the community as a whole," Young said. "Tampa is a vibrant, urban community with a large, involved and vibrant LGBT community. I'm doing my job by representing their interests along with everyone else."
She joins Senate President Pro Tempore Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah; and state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, who all publicly backed the legislation. The main sponsors are Democrats Rep. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg and Sen. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth.
Powerful Senate budget chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is sponsoring a bill banning discrimination in housing (SB 742/HB 659), a second, narrower attempt to ensure greater protections.
Lawmakers who support LGBT protections hail from swing and conservative districts alike, though their numbers still fall short of the critical mass necessary for progress in the Florida Legislature.
To pass, the Competitive Workforce Act and Latvala's housing protections bill will have to gain the support of House and Senate leadership and social conservatives who control key legislative panels.
And those lawmakers in positions of power have been mum about whether they will grant the legislation public hearings.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he is still "reviewing" the protections and has not yet made up his mind. His Governmental Oversight and Accountability committee would have to approve any new antidiscrimination language before it could be voted on by the full Senate.
"I'm very cautious about creating more grounds for a lawsuit," Baxley said, saying he is thinking about the issue like a businessman trying to manage personnel and hiring.
If Baxley gives a hearing to LGBT protections, it would be a notable shift from his reputation in the Capitol for taking passionate stances on socially conservative issues. In 2015, he voted against legislation meant to encourage adoptions because it also struck a 33-year ban on gay people adopting children that had already been thrown out by the courts.
Senate Judiciary chairman Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, said he has concerns about giving new protections to groups of people that are not explicitly protected under the Florida or U.S. constitutions.
His committee includes two of the Republicans who co-sponsored LGBT protections, Flores and Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah, a sign that if they came up for a vote, there would be enough support to pass the bills through.
But Steube would not say whether he would allow a vote.
House Careers and Competition chairman Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, said both civil rights bills are "on the bubble" for a possible hearing this year. If they are heard, it would be the first time a House committee has publicly considered protections for LGBT people.
If committee chairmen don't give these bills a vote, or if they cannot pass a committee, protections for LGBT Floridians will be dead and unable to be brought up for a vote by the House or Senate.
Even with long odds, LGBT rights advocates in Florida are generally optimistic.
The state has not seen the aggressive support other states have shown for legislation rolling back local governments' anti-discrimination laws or limiting transgender people to the restrooms and locker rooms associated with the sex on their birth certificate or driver's license.
Lawmakers proposed a bill targeting transgender people's bathroom use in 2015, but it did not pass. Advocates say they feared a similar piece of legislation this year, but one was not filed by the start of session, a critical deadline.
"I certainly hope that legislators in Florida are paying attention to what happened in North Carolina," said Hannah Willard, lobbyist for LGBT rights group Equality Florida. "The LGBT community here in Florida is very out and proud, especially after the Pulse massacre. Folks have learned the story of LGBT communities, our families have become more visible, and it's really shifted the needle."
There are nevertheless causes for concern, Willard said. A sweeping bill (HB 17) would undo business regulations passed by cities and counties, including local ordinances meant to protect the gay and transgender communities in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, some of which have been in effect for decades.
As more young lawmakers are elected, Sen. Travis Hutson, a 32- year-old Republican elected to a conservative northeast Florida district, expects legislation attacking the LGBT community to subside and support to grow for antidiscrimination protections.
Support from Hutson and other conservative Republicans is notable, said Willard of Equality Florida.
"It's certainly a seismic shift," she said. "What we saw over the last five years, especially, is a growing number of people who understand LGBT equality does not have to be a partisan issue."
Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.