The last time Nadine Smith appeared before the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club was 19 years ago, for a debate over same-sex marriage. She was there to speak in its favor.
Marriage equality would ultimately come to Florida. But Smith, executive director of LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Florida, was back before the Tiger Bay Club Wednesday for a talk timed with June’s Pride month celebrations.
She was there to express concern before the group of civic activists that host regular appearances by newsmakers that the Sunshine State is traveling back in time. But she also voiced hope that people once again can come together in support of one another.
She recounted the time she was arrested in 2007 while protesting the firing of Largo’s city manager, Susan Stanton, after Stanton publicly acknowledged she was looking for a sex-change operation. Though the charges were dropped, Smith said that the hateful rhetoric she heard at those protests has become commonplace again.
Now trans issues are back in the forefront of the LGBTQ+ rights debate, with the state of Florida taking steps to ban drag performances from public places where children might see them. Lawmakers have banned certain forms of gender-affirming care for transgender youth. And they’ve passed a law that requires people to use public bathrooms that correspond to their gender at birth.
“We’re fighting to preserve things that we had to fight for before,” said Smith.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has put those actions front and center as he campaigns to be the Republican nominee for president, saying he has made protecting children and preserving parents’ rights a priority in Florida.
Smith likened the current phenomenon to Stephen King’s “It”: “It’s like this evil clown that shows up every few decades and sort of spews this constant hateful vibe and divides the community.”
Equality Florida was founded in 1997, as Jeb Bush became the governor, and has run a variety of campaigns across the state. Smith said their marriage equality campaign was especially difficult, but is also what she’s most proud of because of its sweeping success.
Same-sex marriage has been allowed in Florida since 2015, after a federal judge ruled the prior year that a ban in Florida was unconstitutional.
This year, her organization found itself preparing resistance reports weekly during the legislative session to catalog lawmakers’ actions it considers harmful to the LGBTQ+ community.
On May 23, the organization joined the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens in issuing a travel advisory for Florida visitors. It cited classroom censorship of nonwhite and LGBTQ+ history and bans on transgender health care and restroom access, as reasons for visitors to exercise caution.
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“The ban bills, the anti-LGBT bills, the attacks on honest teachings of history instead of the whitewashing of history; all of these things are happening in other states,” said Smith. “But what we have here in Florida is the perfect storm.”
Though Smith drew similarities between now and the beginning of her work, she also said she remains hopeful. Even in an age of misinformation and divisive rhetoric, she said that connecting people around community and love is possible.
“That’s the work that’s ahead of us,” Smith said. “I think a lot of people, including folks who identify themselves today as being on the other side of where I stand, I think that that is a vision of the future that they will be able to see themselves in as well.”