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Nadine Smith: Leading and advocating for racial equality and LGBTQ pride

A conversation with a dedicated warrior for LGBTQ rights
Nadine Smith is the Executive Director of Equality Florida, the state's largest organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Nadine Smith is the Executive Director of Equality Florida, the state's largest organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. [ Photo: Courtesy JR Davis/ Equality Florida ]
Published Aug. 9, 2020

Times Correspondent

Former journalist Nadine Smith founded Equality Florida in 1997 in an effort, she said, to “make the world safer for me.‘' It now is the largest organization in Florida working for full LBGTQ rights, according to the nonprofit’s web site. Smith, 54, who lives in St. Petersburg with her wife, Andrea, and 9-year-old son, Logan, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the struggle, progress and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling protecting LGBTQ people from job discrimination.

What is your reaction to the supreme court’s ruling?

It’s a watershed moment. In strong and unambiguous language, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that sex discrimination includes discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And on top of that, the ruling, which was powerfully written by a conservative justice, was a six-three decision. So I think that’s really significant. The court has caught up with where the people are.

It appears that public’s acceptance of gay people and gay rights has made a turn-around in the last decade or two.

Absolutely. When I was in college, I lost a job because I was gay. The deli shop I was working at was owned by a bigot. My then-girlfriend and I were denied an apartment when the person renting it to us realized that we were a gay couple.

The world has changed. Not far enough, not fast enough, but it’s changing because people are coming out, being their authentic selves and exposing the lie of all of the things that we were carefully taught as young people.

Nadine Smith, right, with her son, Logan, and wife, Andrea Smith. Their child was born in Vermont, which has legalized gay marriage.
Nadine Smith, right, with her son, Logan, and wife, Andrea Smith. Their child was born in Vermont, which has legalized gay marriage.

How did you become a crusader for LGBTQ rights?

I grew up a black girl in the South, the panhandle of Florida, and I have family that have been on the front lines fighting racism as sharecroppers in Mississippi. So the message that you have a responsibility to confront bigotry has been part of the world I grew up in. They just didn’t know they were passing those lessons on to a young lesbian as well.

And at some point in college there was an advertisement that they were trying to start an international gay youth group … It was a real eye-opener because for the first time I saw people who lived in places where they didn’t hide, they weren’t fearful, they had government support. And I realized just how deeply I had been drinking this poison of internalized homophobia. Because I was taught, just like any bigot was taught, that I didn’t have a right to really exist freely. If I existed, I really did have to hide.

And so it ... caused me to begin to imagine the world I ought to have been born into. What it would have been like to go to school in a school where there were teachers I could talk to, where I didn’t have to hide who I had a crush on, where relatives wouldn’t go, “You got a little boyfriend yet?” And so the more that became vivid to me the more I had to take a step that would make the world safer for me.

You have been lobbying the Florida legislature to pass the Competitive Workforce Act to protect the rights of LGBTQ people. Do you think legislators will be more willing to act in light of the supreme court ruling?

They should be … Here we are in the third most populous state in the country, 60 percent of the population has been protected by local ordinances that include sexual orientation and gender identity. That has been true in not just the Democratic strongholds but Republican strongholds, like Jacksonville. … Public opinion is firmly on the side that these protections ought to exist, they ought to exist at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level.

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In one interview you talked about the impact the changing demographics in America has on race relations. Could you explain?

We are increasingly, because of health care inequities, a nation of older white people and younger brown people. And … we are reaching the place where no single racial group is the majority. We are a plurality of different races, ethnicities ... and the panic that is coming from a white majority that is about to become one of many races in America is showing up not just in the voting pattern that led to Trump winning the Electoral College ... but in what we are seeing in viral videos of people going off on someone speaking Spanish, or the woman in Central Park confronting a black gay man who was bird-watching.

And she had her dog off the leash. And you see her … weaponizing racism. “I’m going to call and tell them you’re an African-American man and you’re threatening me,‘' and then gets on the telephone and performs this damsel-in-distress routine. That there’s no resemblance to anything that actually happened to her, but with this built-in knowledge that if she acts that way, the chances that they will arrive ready to do him harm increase exponentially. Those are the things that stem, I believe, from this sort of existential panic: I don’t want to be a minority in America because I know how minorities are treated in America.