Three years after the deadliest act of violence against LGBTQ people in the history of the country, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, activists across the state are encouraged by what they say are positive steps forward for Florida’s LGBTQ community.
In spite of significant challenges, including from conservative lawmakers who hold the majority of seats in the statehouse, a federal memorial is in the works at the site of the shooting in Orlando. And this week, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis voiced his support for the gay community.
Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf, who is now an advocate and media director with the group Equality Florida, said Friday on The Florida Roundup that he is optimistic about the future.
“My hope and my thought is that as we get into the next legislative session, Florida will turn the tide and the South will be a beacon of hope for everyone about what’s possible in terms of protecting folks,” he said.
A bill to federally recognize a Pulse memorial at the former nightclub site was proposed this month by U.S. representatives Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy, both of whom lost constituents in the shooting. It has received strong bipartisan support.
The memorial would be locally operated by the One Pulse Foundation and supported by grants and local funds, Rep. Soto said on The Florida Roundup. The project is set to cost around $50 million. It would include a museum facility as well as a “survivor’s walk” designating the distance between the nightclub and the hospital. The One Pulse Foundation is hoping to revitalize the area into a “Pulse district,” and is currently seeking public commentary and considering various potential designs.
Wolf said the national memorial is a wonderful opportunity for his community.
“[Pulse] really changed how we look at things not only in the LGBTQ community, but really across the world and how we look at homophobia,” Wolf said. “This is a really important step to memorialize those 49 victims and to make a statement as a country that we are resilient and that hate won’t win.”
Last week, DeSantis received pushback after he failed to name the LGBTQ and Latinx communities in a proclamation remembering the Pulse shooting. DeSantis quickly updated his statement, and later appeared at the Pulse site as a gesture of solidarity.
Former Governor Rick Scott was not considered an ally by the LGBTQ community. He was accused on Twitter by Florida Rep. Carlos G. Smith last February of not caring about LGBTQ victims and not getting to know Pulse victims’ families.
“This is a really important step for the LGBT community to see their governor at Pulse … paying his respects, promising and pledging to do right by our community,” Wolf said of DeSantis.
In recent years, Equality Florida has passed over 40 local nondiscrimination laws for sexual orientation and gender identity protections in cities and counties across the state. According to the organization, it’s the most passed in any state in the country.
Still, anti-LGBTQ sentiments remain strong in the state.
Anti gay pastors led a conference titled “Make America Straight Again” in Orlando this weekend during Pride celebrations. Participants were met by protesters despite having a undisclosed event location. According to a statement from the Lake County Sheriff's Office, the group was denied security with off-duty police officers.
“It looks like a hate group, and we decided we didn’t want to be involved,” Lt. John Herrell said to the Orlando Sentinel. They stated that they knew the group would be looking to disparage and target the LGBTQ people during its conference and that it was in "poor taste" that the event was being held the weekend of the three-year anniversary of the Pulse shooting.
The state legislature has also failed to move on including LGBTQ protections in its nondiscrimination laws in employment and housing. The Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which would have added LGBTQ protections to Florida’s Civil Rights Act, died at the end of the legislative session. It had the support of 73 legislators, including 15 Republicans.
Earlier this month, Rep. Mike Hill (R-Pensacola) was reportedly heard laughing in an audio recording when asked by a constituent whether he would introduce a bill to allow for the execution of LGBTQ people. In the same audio recording Hill also described sexual orientation as a “choice.”
Wolf said he refuses to give attention to a “very small, loud minority” of people adverse to the community, noting polls indicate that more than 70 percent of Floridians support the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s nondiscrimination law.
Tampa mayor Jane Castor agrees. Last year she became the first LGBTQ mayor of a major city in the southeast. On The Florida Roundup Friday, she said it was a “positive commentary” on Tampa that her sexuality wasn’t an issue during her campaign.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the first LGBT mayor, I want to be remembered as a good mayor,” Castor said. “However, the responsibility of being the first is certainly not lost on me.”