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Gay-Rights Advocates: 'Times Are Changing' For LGBT Issues In Fla. Legislature

It’s been five years since Floridians voted to define marriage as one man and one woman in the state constitution. But this year, bills that would ban discriminating against gay people and allow them to enter into domestic partnerships are getting bipartisan support in the Legislature. Supporters of the bills say the Legislature seems to be changing its attitude toward equality.

Tuesday will be the first time a Florida legislative committee will consider allowing domestic partnerships for all couples, gay or straight.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) has sponsored the domestic-partnership bill, S.B. 196, every year since 2008, but it’s never gotten heard in committee, until Sen. President Don Gaetz (R-Destin) assigned it this year.

“I thank him from the bottom of my heart for hearing this bill, which I believe affects tens of thousands of Floridians who believe that this is the right thing to do and the fair thing to do for couples who love each other,” Sobel said.

The bill would create a statewide registry of domestic partnerships. It’s an option that already exists in places like Tampa and Miami-Dade County.

The bill says that any privilege or responsibility granted to married people would be granted to domestic partners. But John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said, that’s why it violates the state constitution and would never pass the full Legislature.

He said, “I think it’s just deceptive; it should be labeled a gay marriage bill, instead of trying to circumvent the will of the people, it’s a backdoor attempt to do something that Florida has already, as a matter of public policy, through direct democracy of the people, have already said, ‘No, we don’t want this.’”

But one of the bill’s House sponsors, Rep. Irv Slosberg (D-Delray Beach), said, registering as domestic partners is not the same thing as getting married. And he said, he knows many couples in his Palm Beach County district who want the option.

“Sometimes they don’t want to be married,” he said. “Widowed senior citizens, they don’t want the ceremonial or religious implications of a marriage, but they just want the companionship.”

Slosberg said, he expects the bill to be slated to be heard by a House committee soon. And the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, which is chaired by Sobel, will vote on it Tuesday.

Mallory Wells, with the gay-rights advocacy group Equality Florida, said, as she’s been meeting with lawmakers of both parties, she’s seeing shift in the overall view toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.  

“Members from both parties are really understanding that equality is a nonpartisan issue we all need to come together to work on,” she said. “I think in the last election, we saw overwhelming support for a whole range of LGBT issues.”

Wells pointed to last year’s legalization of gay marriage in the states of Washington, Maryland and Maine; President Obama’s public support of gay marriage and the election of Florida’s first openly gay lawmakers, Rep. David Richardson (D- Miami Beach) and Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando).

Saunders is sponsoring a bill, H.B. 653, that would ban employers and landlords from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Wells said, she’s encouraged by the fact that one of Saunders’ co-sponsors is Rep. Holly Raschein (R- Key West).

“I think it’s really great that some of the newer elected members are coming together to say, ‘This is going to help Florida, and it doesn’t matter what party you’re from,’” Wells said.

It’s the first time a Republican has introduced a bill banning that kind of discrimination. It’s been referred to several committees with no date yet for a hearing.