Florida’s Key West is one of the most gay-friendly places in the country. The Florida Panhandle – many locals call it the Redneck Riviera – is a different story.
The massacre of 49 people in a gay nightclub happened between these extremes, forcing many Floridians to reconsider their assumptions about the state’s evolving culture.
Key West has a gay police chief, a lesbian county mayor and was the nation’s first city to elect an openly gay mayor. It attracts 450,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender tourists a year. Bumper stickers reading “One Human Family” appear on all city vehicles, including police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
“It’s a safe place; they know that they are free from judgment, free from hassle, free from physical violence,” said Guy Ross, who heads LGBT sales at the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “We do not tolerate gay bashing down here. It just doesn’t happen.”
Drive 780 miles north and west to the gleaming, white-sand beaches of the Panhandle, and you’ll find “family friendly” towns that aren’t known for welcoming gays.
After gay marriage became legal in Florida in 2014, the Santa Rosa County clerk stopped performing any wedding ceremonies – gay or straight – to avoid marrying same-sex couples. In Pensacola, a small LBGT community center called Equality House closed for lack of funds after less than three years.
The attack in central Florida on June 12 – Latin Night at the Pulse club in Orlando – has drawn an outpouring of solidarity, but also fear, particularly among people who saw the tourist mecca as a refuge from hatred.
The shooting also created awkward moments for some of Florida’s Republican and conservative Christian leaders, who tried to show compassion even as they defended positions gays and lesbians find hurtful.
“There are two Floridas,” and between them there’s a “patchwork,” said Nadine Smith, CEO of the gay and transgender rights group Equality Florida.
Only 56 percent of the people in the nation’s third-most populous state live in communities that have enacted non-discrimination protections. The state provides “no protections whatsoever,” she said.
Year after year, Florida’s Republican-led Legislature has rejected legislation prohibiting discrimination for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“When I drive from where I live in the Tampa Bay area to my hometown in the Panhandle, I have to weave my way through places that have full protections for me and my family and places where they’re absolutely indifferent to the discrimination my community faces,” Smith said.
Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi came to Orlando and was put on the spot by CNN’s Anderson Cooper after she vowed to prosecute anyone who attacks the LGBT community.
Cooper asked her to respond to the many gays and lesbians who call her a hypocrite because she spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars trying to uphold the state’s gay marriage ban.
In her defense, Bondi said she had an obligation to represent the will of the voters, and added that her own views are reflected by a photo of clasped, rainbow-colored hands that she posted – after the shooting – on her personal Facebook page.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned against adoptions by gays and lesbians in 2010, didn’t respond directly when asked if the attack made him rethink this position. Scott instead spoke of the need for love, even with “the gays.”
“These are individuals. Let’s love every one of them,” he said.
Down in Key West, Ross dismissed the governor’s statements as “crocodile tears.”
“Scott has no credibility in the LGBT community,” he said.
The Florida Family Policy Council, which has campaigned against gay rights, issued a statement asking for prayers for the victim’s families after the attack.
That didn’t mean much for Smith.
“It’s hard to accept them praying for us in tragedy when they prey on us when it comes to equality,” she said. “It is very clear who needs protecting in Florida.”
And just because they’re praying, it doesn’t mean their positions on opposing LGBT rights will change. They won’t, said the council’s president, John Stemberger.
Stemberger said it’s “shameless” for the LGBT community to use the attack to “try to leverage a political agenda,” and he doesn’t think changing Florida’s laws would have helped anyway.
“It wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. Pulse would still have happened,” he said.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.