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This conservative group advocates for LGBTQ rights. Can it make itself heard in today’s GOP?

Tampa Bay-area elected officials made the case for a more inclusive Republican Party at a Wednesday meeting of Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality in Tampa.
Several Republican Tampa Bay-area elected officials and office seekers attend an event for Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality in Tampa on Wednesday, May 23. From left to right: Hillsborough County Commissioners Victor Crist and Sandra Murman; State Representatives Chris Latvala and Amber Mariano; State Sen. Dana Young, CRSE coordinator Patrick Slevin; State Rep. Jackie Toledo and Hillsborough County Commissioner candidate Aakash Patel. Credit: Kirby Wilson, Tampa Bay Times
Several Republican Tampa Bay-area elected officials and office seekers attend an event for Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality in Tampa on Wednesday, May 23. From left to right: Hillsborough County Commissioners Victor Crist and Sandra Murman; State Representatives Chris Latvala and Amber Mariano; State Sen. Dana Young, CRSE coordinator Patrick Slevin; State Rep. Jackie Toledo and Hillsborough County Commissioner candidate Aakash Patel. Credit: Kirby Wilson, Tampa Bay Times
Published May 25, 2018
Updated May 27, 2018

A small crowd of Tampa Bay-area Republicans met last week in Tampa to advocate for a cause not typically associated with the party: LGBTQ rights.

Six elected officials, including state representatives, Hillsborough County commissioners and a state senator spoke before a few dozen attendees at Wednesday's meeting of Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality (CRSE) at Tampa's Centre Club.

Their message: Florida's laws should not discriminate against gays. It's wrong — and it's bad for business.

"For me, this issue is personal," Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said in a brief speech to the group. "But this is also an economic issue for our state. We've got to continue to attract the best and the brightest to our companies here."

But is today's Republican Party willing to truly advocate for LGBTQ rights?

In Florida,  Gov. Rick Scott has famously yet to sign an executive order that would ban discrimination based on sexual and gender identity in state hiring and contracting. The two Republican candidates for governor, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, recently appeared at a candidate forum hosted by a group that promotes articles like "Homosexuality is not a Civil Right" on its website. Republican leadership in Tallahassee has yet to give serious attention to the Competitive Workforce Act.

The national Republican Party comes with its own challenges. As Politico has reported, President Trump's Department of Health and Human Services has rolled back a number of regulations designed to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients. The President famously attempted by Twitter fiat to ban transgender troops from military service. And he selected Mike Pence, public enemy number one to many in the queer community, to be his vice president.

On Wednesday, making the GOP case for LGBTQ rights were Young, state reps. Chris Latvala, Jackie Toledo and Amber Mariano and Hillsborough County Commissioners Victor Crist and Sandy Murman. They argued that Florida badly needs to add anti-discrimination protections like the Competitive Workforce Act in order to draw economy-juicing corporations and startups to the state — an argument that emphasizes economic theory over human rights.

"In the past, it's been kind of a lonely place to be a Republican that was pro equality," Young said in an interview at the event. "It's not so lonely anymore."

A pledge handed out at the Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality meeting in Tampa Wednesday, May 23. Credit: Kirby Wilson, Tampa Bay Times.

CRSE is a program of the South Florida-based SAVE, which advocates for equal protections for Florida's LGBTQ community. CRSE is a young group: Wednesday's meeting in a stately ballroom overlooking Tampa Bay was its sixth. But program director Patrick Slevin said the group has big ambitions.

"CRSE is creating a unique lane thats going to influence the public dialogue on the issue of LGBT discrimination in Florida," Slevin said in an interview.

David Leatherwood, a filmmaker from St. Petersburg Beach, said he came to the CRSE event to show his support for the conservative community's push for equality.

"A lot of buzzwords that get thrown around like 'racist' or 'homophobe' or 'xenophobe' … I think that they're completely overblown," Leatherwood said, noting that he has faced far more discrimination from the left as a conservative than he has from the right as a gay man.

Read more: Guns, bathroom bills and abortion: Putnam, DeSantis take on social issues in first GOP guv forum

Attendee Tyler Whyte, an activist with the rabidly anti-feminist fringe group Proud Boys, said most conservatives advocate a "mind your own business" approach to social issues like same-sex marriage. (A 2017 Pew Research poll found that Republicans are divided on gay marriage.)

Many in the small crowd said they believe that Republican attitudes toward LGBTQ rights are evolving in part because the millennial generation is coming of age.

Mariano, who was elected in 2016 to the Florida House at just 21, said she's wasn't raised with the anti-gay attitudes of older generations.

"I really think it's going to be my generation that comes up that's going to really promote this issue and take it over the finish line," Mariano said.

Nadine Smith, the co-founder and CEO of Equality Florida, another large anti-LGBTQ discrimination group, said in a Wednesday phone interview that she is encouraged by CRSE's efforts. The LGBTQ community will need Republican help in the fight against unequal treatment, Smith said.

Tony Lima, SAVE's Executive Director, echoed that sentiment. He said he hoped to convince enough lawmakers of the economic benefits of equality to get the Competitive Workforce Act passed within two to four years.

"Our focus is to bring in those conservatives who are true conservatives," Lima said. "The Mike Pences of the world are never going to support our issues."

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