Orlando mass shooting, aftermath rattle Florida’s gay-rights fault lines

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott held a news conference on the mass shootings in Orlando without once acknowledging what by then was clear — that the killer’s targets were principally gay men — many people took notice, especially those in the state’s large, vocal and organized LGBT community.

Over the next two days, they made their feelings of dismay and disbelief plain in a deluge of tweets and social-media postings. Only then did Scott, a conservative Republican whose active opposition to legal marriage for gays and lesbians had not endeared him to the community, issue a statement alluding to the obvious.

“We pray for our LGBT community,” Scott said on Twitter. “Our Hispanic community. Our state. Our nation. This was an attack on every American.”

It was too late for many in the community, though. The governor’s supportive tweet unleashed another barrage of online opprobrium, with many LGBT Floridians accusing Scott and other conservative politicians who have opposed gay rights but issued sympathetic messages after the shootings of hypocrisy and opportunism.

If the immediate aftermath of the shootings brought a rare moment of unified political support for the victims, that has since been fractured by a persisting schism in Florida over the question of LGBT rights that goes back at least to the late 1970s, when Miami anti-gay-rights crusader Anita Bryant’s successful campaign to overturn an anti-discrimination Miami-Dade County ordinance launched a national backlash against expanded legal protections for homosexuals.

LGBT rights advocates in Florida have scored some substantial victories in the decades since: Miami-Dade reinstated its ordinance 20 years later and more recently extended its protections to transgender people. Numerous other local governments across the state have also adopted similarly broad human-rights ordinances. Courts overturned a state ban on gay adoption in 2010 and declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in 2014, allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally in Florida for the first time, starting in 2015. Florida’s tourism agency, meanwhile, runs national promotions to lure gay and lesbian tourists, especially to welcoming destinations like Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Miami Beach and Orlando.

But Florida, with large evangelical and traditionally minded retiree populations, and politically dominated by conservative Republicans, remains sharply split on the issue, and the Orlando shootings may only intensify the battle over additional legal protections and social acceptance for LGBT people.

So far, advocates’ ultimate legislative goal — a statewide ban on housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation — remains elusive, a reality that the Orlando massacre only drove home even harder for some. The attack also prompted a wave of anti-gay messages on social media from people who said the victims brought it on themselves because of what the posters described as immoral behavior.

“After the victories in marriage equality, the conversation shifted to the fact that you can be married on a Saturday and be fired on Monday for being gay,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant and LGBT-rights advocate based in Miami Beach. “What happened in Orlando, it’s a punch to the gut and it’s a wake-up call. The victories we’ve had are important. But there is still vitriol and hate, and you see it on social media. Marriage equality was but one victory in a long fight.”

Conservative and religious leaders have tried to gingerly sidestep the question, saying the immediate aftermath of the tragedy is not the right time to take up a politically fraught question like that of gay rights.

“We are still trying to get our hands around it,” said Republican State Rep. Frank Artiles of Miami, who unsuccessfully introduced a bill in the past session of the Florida Legislature that would have barred transgender people from using a public bathroom that did not match their birth gender. “Right now, it’s time to console the families of the victims of this mass terrorism attack. That’s priority No. 1. Right now, legislation is the last thing on anybody’s mind.”

But advocates say it’s very much on theirs, and they expect more than just words of support from Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose testy exchanges this past week with CNN news host Anderson Cooper over her costly record of fighting same-sex marriage in court have gone viral. They say that Scott and Bondi have in the past pandered to gay-rights opponents, noting the governor’s signing earlier of a controversial bill shielding clergy from civil action for refusing to perform same-sex weddings as a largely symbolic action to please religious conservatives.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, the legislative director for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida, said Scott should now prove good faith by signing an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in state agencies and contracting, and that legislative leaders should move on an expansion of the state’s civil-rights laws that has been introduced but stalled for nine years.

“The governor can sign this executive order today. The idea that the state would not respond to a horrific hate crime by doing the bare minimum to protect its LGTBQ citizens, well, that’s absolutely something that must happen and will happen,” said Smith, who is running for the state Legislature from Orlando. “A lot of people are asking what good could come of this tragedy. The question is, what good will we make of this?”

Smith and other advocates say they’re more than willing to cut Scott some slack if he engages in a real discussion over gay rights. The governor, known for not displaying much emotion, has been visibly moved in encounters with victims and their families and in describing the impact of the shootings on them. He has laid flowers at a memorial for victims, met with their families and retweeted posts from Delta Airlines, the Tampa Bay Rays baseball club and others festooned with logos in the rainbow colors of the gay-pride flag.

“That’s why I’m optimistic,” Smith said. “This has had an impact on the governor. He’s a human being. There is no way he cannot have been moved, not just to see the outpouring of love, as well as the devastation this has caused.”

But Ulvert, Smith and other LGBT Floridians and activists say it didn’t help matters when Bondi reacted defensively in a live interview with CNN’s Cooper outside the Orlando hospital where many shooting victims were treated. Citing criticism from local members of the LGBT community, Cooper hectored Bondi over her expressed support for what she called “our” LGBT community after the attack, in contrast to her previous defense of the state’s marriage ban in court, based on an argument that same-sex marriage posed a threat of “harm” to Florida.

Cooper called it a “sick irony” that many spouses of victims would not have had the right to visit their loved ones in the hospital if the ban had not been overturned. After the interview, Bondi went on the offensive against Cooper on a New York radio talk show, accusing the newsman of “creating more anger and havoc and hatred yesterday.”

Bondi wasted an opportunity to reach out to the gay and lesbian community in a meaningful way by expressing regret or second thoughts about her legal defense of the marriage ban, Ulvert said.

“Words are not enough. Actions matter. To honor the victims is to recognize that times have changed, and should change,” Ulvert said.

The shootings have sharpened a sense of urgency among the state’s LGBT advocates. Even before the attack, they were on edge amid a legal backlash over the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country that has included so-called “bathroom bills” aimed at transgender people and passed in North Carolina and Mississippi. Though Artiles’ similar bill stalled after passing two committee votes, activists say politicians, ministers and preachers who have demonized gays and lesbians as deviants during the past few years of debate have stoked anti-gay hatred and discrimination in the state.

After the shootings, The New York Times published an analysis of FBI data showing that LGBT people are now the most likely victims of hate crimes across the country, displacing Jews.

“My heart is angry because the indignation and the hate that has been expressed toward our community has caused this mess,” Stanley Ramos, a young, gay Puerto Rican social worker who is studying to be a pastor, said as he began a tearful sermon Wednesday evening at Orlando’s LGBT-oriented Joy Metropolitan Community Church. “This mess has happened because we’ve given a license to attack gay people. This mess has happened because preachers of our Christian faith have stood up on television and sat on the radio and have preached the gospel against us.”

Ramos’ sermon underscored the gulf that remains in the wake of the shootings between LGBT Floridians and even well-meaning people who have offered what he described as grudging, backhanded sympathy. He said he was appalled when he visited a fundamentalist church the night before for a vigil on behalf of victims of the massacre.

“I heard them say how much in spite, in spite of our sin they love us. In spite of our differences, hear me, in spite of our differences — we come together in love,” he said.

Smacking the back of his hand into his other palm, his words coming louder and louder, Ramos said he’d had enough of that and urged his congregation not to take it anymore, either.

“Last night, I had not been in a straight, evangelical, heterosexual, predominantly white church in 15 years. And I went last night and I sat there saying, ‘Lord, it’s gonna be 50 before I do this again,’ ” Ramos said. “I’m not doing it no more. I’m not apologizing to you. I don’t care if you accept me or you don’t accept me.”