Gay marriage supporters say Floridians’ perception of the practice has changed so much in the past five years that they predict marriage equality will come to the state by 2016. Advocacy group Equality Florida is planning a legal strategy at the same time it continues a public opinion campaign and pushes new protections for LGBT people in the statehouse.
Emily Kaiser is a South Florida native, and she’s about to graduate from Florida State University in May. But when she thinks about her dream job, she says, she doesn’t see it being in the Sunshine State.
“I really, really want to move out to Colorado. I mean: A) Gay marriage is legalized there. B) It’s beautiful…” she says while sitting at lunch in Tallahassee.
Kaiser, who identifies as a lesbian, isn’t in a relationship right now. But she says she takes her rights into consideration when planning her future.
“If it goes as how they predict, that in a few years there will be marriage equality, I might stick around a little bit longer because I’ve grown up my entire life living in Florida,” she says.
Kaiser’s attitude toward her home state reflects what many in the business community see as a problem that needs confronting. They worry a lack of state protections for LGBT people could be driving away talented workers.
“We have to build around the opportunities of everybody, be they a little bit different than you or not,” says Florida Chamber Foundation Executive Vice President Tony Carvajal.
“And we’re at pivot points in this state and this country where the places that recognize the best talent and recruit them and retain them are the ones that are going to win this next economic challenge,” he says.
Nadine Smith, who’s CEO of advocacy group Equality Florida, says vocal support from the business community is just one of the signs that public opinion has drastically shifted since 62 percent of voters put a gay marriage ban in the state constitution just five years ago. She says the change is apparent even in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature.
“A number of times I’ve talked to Republican lawmakers who say, ‘You know, my children have really challenged me on this,’” Smith says.
Gay-rights bills are getting bipartisan support for the first time too. Republicans have signed on to measures that would create a statewide domestic-partnership registry and ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
And inside the House chambers, lawmakers have two openly gay colleagues who were elected last year: Orange County Democrat Joe Saunders and Miami Beach Democrat David Richardson.
“Gay people are not abstractions far away when the business is being conducted in Tallahassee,” Smith says. “They are real people. And you have to look somebody in the eye when you cast your vote.”
Smith says polls show 54 percent of Floridians now support gay marriage, with the strongest support among young people. Still, Florida Family Policy Council President John Stemberger says his group is ready with its own campaign to sway public opinion against gay marriage.
“I have a lot of restrictions on who I can marry, and so if you meet the legal requirements, you can get married, and one of those requirements are you have to marry somebody of the opposite sex. That is the essence of what marriage is,” he says.
But regardless of who wins the battle of public opinion, Smith says the war will be fought in court.
Smith says when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, Florida’s gay couples were left with a Rubik’s cube of local, state and federal regulations. The upside, she says, is that utter confusion creates the perfect atmosphere to challenge Florida’s gay marriage ban before a judge.
Stemberger says the best way to fight the legal strategy is to stop incremental changes in the statehouse.
“What you see are courts saying, ‘Hey, well look at the totality of these statues regarding nondiscrimination or regarding, you know, domestic partnerships,’ and they use that as a precedent to say, ‘Hey, society’s transforming. We need to transform with it,’” Stemberger says.
In Tallahassee, Emily Kaiser says society is changing.
“Because of our generation moving at the pace that we’re moving, I think it’s very, very likely that Florida will legalize gay marriage in the next three years,” she says.
Equality Florida has spent the past six months collecting gay couples' stories to make sure their planned lawsuit has the most compelling characters possible—and Smith says the group has every intention to file its legal action in the “very near” future.
NOTE: Contrary to what Emily Kaiser stated in this story, Colorado has not legalized gay marriage. But that state did pass a law this year allowing gay couples to enter civil unions similar to marriage.