ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s hard to miss the LGBTQ+ Center on Mills Avenue in Orlando.

An American and transgender flag fly at the front of the building. As you walk through a front door, large displays on the wall catch your eye.

The displays walk visitors through a violent June 1969 night at a Manhattan, New York bar called “Stonewall.” That bar, that night would spark a major movement for the nation’s LGBTQ communities that continue today.


“It was a catalyst for gay liberation and gay rights,” said George Wallace, Executive Director of the LGBTQ+ Center in Orlando.

“Gay bars were a safe haven,” Wallace said. “That’s where people went. There were other gay people, they were able to socialize and meet each other, and be their authentic selves, and it was also illegal.”

Gay bars like Stonewall were regularly raided by police.

“There were a lot of homophobic slurs, terrible things happening, and one night they were raided and a few activists said ‘no more,’ and they rioted back and police took notice and the world took notice,” Wallace said.

While the pushback at Stonewall is credited for creating a movement for change, that movement faced its own backlash.

The 1960s and 70s were filled with laws and acts that made it essentially illegal to be gay.

Lawmakers first passed a “Crimes Against Nature” measure in 1868, but in 1971 the law was upgraded to make it a second-degree felony to be gay. The law was repealed entirely in 1974.

The year 1977 also produced the state’s ban on gay adoption and same sex marriage.

At the time, then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles said, “… I believe that, by and large, most Floridians are tolerant and will one day come to view a broader range of domestic partnerships as acceptable part of life. But that is not the case today.”

Court fights eventually led to both bans being ruled unconstitutional years later.

“We chip away and sometimes have great success and some setbacks, and we just have to keep fighting,” Wallace said.

It’s a fight that continues today.

“You can be fired from your job, denied public accommodations or public housing simply for being gay or transgender,” said State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, Florida’s first ever elected openly gay Latino.

Workplace Protections

Advocates have spent the better part of a decade trying to provide workplace protections for those who a part of the LGBTQ spectrum.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week took up arguments in three cases where the case will rule whether it is legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Similar efforts have been underway in Florida, but they have failed so far to pass the Competitive Workforce Act, which would extend such protections.

Advocates say more than 400 major employers in Florida support the measure.

“In Florida the most important legislative priority of the LGBTQ community is modernizing the state’s civil rights act to make sure gay and transgender Floridians are not discriminated against,” Guillermo Smith said. “There’s a lot of unfinished business on the issue of discrimination that Gov. Ron DeSantis can play a direct role in.”

Guillermo Smith, a staunch Democrat, says there is hope that DeSantis can become at least a partial ally in efforts to expand civil rights for the LGBTQ community. DeSantis, however, has faced criticism for excluding the LGBTQ community from policy, specifically from a workplace anti-discrimination executive order and a preliminary Pulse remembrance proclamation. DeSantis, however, in June 2019 also became the first sitting Florida governor to visit the Pulse memorial.  

Strides in 2015

Guillermo Smith said he was first inspired to run for office in 2015 when a bill was proposed that would prohibit transgender individuals from using certain public restrooms. The bill failed.

The year 2015 also marked major strides for the LGBTQ community.

A ban was lifted, allowing gay couples and individuals to adopt. Near the same time a federal court ruled in August 2014 that Florida’s ban on same sex marriage was unconstitutional, leading to a ban lift in 2015. The same year, a U.S. Supreme Court decision opened same sex marriage nationwide.

Advocates say progress has also proven to be anything but constant.

“In 2015 we were lulled to sleep. The Supreme Court ruled we could get married to who we love, we had a president and vice president who would happily wear rainbows and wave flags and light the White House up in rainbow colors, so we got complacent,” said Brandon Wolf, an LGBTQ activist and member of Equality Florida. “Pride became a moment for us to drink and party and celebrate and we forgot how quickly the tide can turn.”

LGBTQ Rights Under President Trump

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) says President Donald Trump and his administration have made at least 128 targeted attacks against the LGBTQ community by rolling back protections and rolling out anti-LGBTQ policies and initiatives.

The White House told Spectrum News President Donald Trump has been a leader for LGBTQ inclusion and protections.

“In June of 2019, which was also the 50th anniversary of the historic events at Stonewall Inn in New York City, President Donald J. Trump became the first Republican president in history to celebrate June as LGBT Pride Month,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told Spectrum News in a statement.

Deere continued, “Donald Trump, as a private citizen and as president, has stood strong with a message of inclusion and advocated for the equal treatment of all, including the LGBT community. As the first U.S. President in our history to favor same-sex marriage when he was sworn in, President Trump has never considered LGBT Americans second class citizens and has opposed discrimination of any kind against them. The President has hired and promoted LGBT Americans to the highest levels of government, including positions at the White House, cabinet agencies, and ambassadorships.”

The White House says the President has also worked toward ending HIV transmissions in the United States within 10 years.

It is a record that LGBTQ advocates push back against.

“The falsehoods coming from this administration are palatable and aimed alarmingly at transgender communities,” said Gina Duncan, Director of Transgender Equality at Equality Florida. “We see it starting with the rollback of school guidance to transgender military ban to rolling back protections in homeless shelters for the transgender community... It’s a huge concern and not only does it gas light this dialogue around marginalizing the LGBTQ community, but it also fuels violence.”

Duncan says there has been an increase in violence targeting the LGBTQ community and transgender individuals specifically.

The Human Rights Campaign says it tracked at least 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. in 2018 due to violence. That number is estimated to now stand at 19 this year.

“Words matter and the actions of this administration are definitely impacting the cultural norms and the ways LGBTQ people are treated,” Duncan said.

What’s Next?

Advocates continue to forge on with efforts they say continue to hold back the LGBTQ community.

Guillermo Smith said he is optimistic that after nearly a decade lawmakers will finally extend workplace protections for those who are LGBTQ. There are two bills now filed for the 2020 session, which include Senate Bill 206 and House Bill 161.

The Williams Institute at the University of California estimates 7.1 million American workers identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual — another 1 million workers identify as transgender.

The federal government and state of Florida do not have laws enacted that specifically provide LGBTQ protections in the workplace, while 22 states and the District of Columbia do have statutes protecting employees based on sexual orientation.

Another pressing issue among the LGBTQ community is convincing local governments to ban conversion therapy. The highly-criticized practice is part of an effort to convert often youth from being gay to straight. Groups like American Psychiatric Association have long denounced the practice.

While groups are encouraging Orange County to adopt a ban on conversion therapy, a federal judge in early October 2019 struck down the city of Tampa’s ban on conversion therapy.

While politics often play a role in the status of civil rights, LGBTQ advocates hope they can continue making strides – politics aside.

“I think it’s important to bring it back to the humanity of it all,” Wolf said. “I think about my dad. My dad is a Trump supporter. My dad is staunchly conservative. We largely disagree about a lot of things, but he’s still my dad. We still have a lot of love for another.

Wolf added, “Anytime I get the opportunity to speak to people like my dad I bring it back to our common elements. We’re all people, we’re all Americans. We all live in this country that’s built on the foundation of freedom and liberty and justice, so I simply ask people to talk to me about your kids. Talk to me about your family and can you imagine if your kids face the kind of discrimination people are facing today.”

INTERACTIVE: Florida's LGBTQ Laws, From 1868 to the Present