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The culture in Tallahassee is slowly improving

We still have WTF moments in the Capitol, like when we see Confederate flags on display, but it's better now than it used to be



Imagine if you worked in a place where people talked about the Bible and abortion all the time.

I did it, and it was weird.

I worked as a legislative aide in the Florida House of Representatives during the 2009 and 2010 sessions, and it was difficult to express to friends back home just how … quaint certain aspects of Capitol culture were.

Sometimes legislators participated in “Seersucker Suit Day” or “Boot Day” (thanks to the Florida cattle ranchers). In April of this year, former Planned Parenthood lobbyist Stephanie Kunkel posted a photo on Facebook of a Confederate flag history display in a busy Capitol hallway, proving some things haven’t changed.

Photos alone, however, can’t depict the slow, Southern drawl that emanated from some of the most shockingly backward men I had ever witnessed. Anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-everything. They lobbed ridiculous arguments during floor debate, citing Scripture as the foundation for some of their most restrictive ideas.

One of the worst offenders was Palatka Republican state Rep. Charles Van Zant, who would often use his microphone time to share his dark ruminations about human sexuality and gender.

Last week, we all got to see video from March of Van Zant telling the Operation Education Conference in Orlando that Common Core education guidelines are designed to turn kids gay.

“These people, that will now receive $220 million from the state of Florida unless this is stopped,” warned Van Zant, “will promote double-mindedness in state education, and attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can. I’m sorry to report that to you. … I really hate to bring you that news.”

It was jarring back in my tenure to realize that these guys were running Florida, but I was inspired by seeing progressive activists do their jobs, even when they knew how outnumbered they were.

So what is Tallahassee like for progressives now, four years later? I decided to ask an LGBT advocate who’s been working there for years, Equality Florida’s public policy director, Mallory Garner-Wells.

“It’s very different, yet still somewhat the same,” says Garner-Wells, whose principal piece of legislation is the Competitive Workforce Act, which would modernize state law to include anti-discrimination protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. “When you look at Florida politics and Florida policy, on paper it feels like not much has changed, but the climate in Tallahassee is so much better.”

Four years ago, that climate was pretty rough for Garner-Wells and other LGBT allies, but now she’s seeing gains in the unlikeliest of places.

“I used to get kicked out of offices; I mean, I would walk in and say that I wanted to talk about it and people would just stand up and usher me right out of the room. And now that’s not the case at all. We have 10 Republican co-sponsors on one of our bills.”

“These Republicans are not just putting their names on our bills,” says Garner-Wells. “They sit with us in meetings and talk about how they will go to the Speaker with the bill to say, ‘This is really important to me,’ and tell their story and ask the Speaker to hear it.”

She says now Disney, CSX, Wells Fargo, Darden, “all the major Florida employers that you can think of,” have formed a coalition to support the bill, called Businesses for a Competitive Workforce.

So how do you sway Florida Republicans and business groups to begin embracing equality in the workplace?

Garner-Wells says it starts with thinking about the issues you care about, then researching what’s happening and engaging with people already involved.

“There are always more of us than there are of the naysayers,” says Garner-Wells. “If you look at elections where voter turnout is high, progressive issues always win.”


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