Florida gays say promise broken
No order issued to protect workers despite commitment by governor
ORLANDO, Fla. — Gayrights advocates accuse the Florida governor’s office of breaking a commitment it made after the 2016 massacre at a gay nightclub to pursue an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT state workers and contractors.
Gov. Rick Scott at the time publicly offered his sympathy to the 49 victims’ families and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “These are individuals. Let’s love every one of them,” he said then.
Behind the scenes, gayrights advocates said, Scott’s staff promised to seek the issuance of the executive order. But more than a year later, no such order has been issued.
The advocates believe the order has become even more important in the past couple of weeks as the U.S. Justice Department, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, filed court papers in a New York case saying sexual orientation is not covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The law bans workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, enforces the law against private employers and says sexual orientation is covered.
The Republican governor wouldn’t talk about the alleged commitment his staff made when asked by a reporter Tuesday. But he said federal guidelines protect the gay community and the state follows them.
State Rep. Carlos Smith, a gay Democrat, accused Scott of using the Pulse nightclub shooting to his political advantage.
“Many political leaders used the tragedy at Pulse to leverage their own political careers and to make promises to our community that they could have delivered on but they did not,” Smith said at a recent forum for Orlando’s gay and Hispanic communities. A majority of the Pulse victims were gay Hispanics.
After the Pulse attack, the gay-rights advocates said two members of the governor’s staff met at a hotel with leaders from the group Equality Florida.
Scott’s then-Chief of Staff Kim McDougal and legislative affairs director Kevin Reilly asked what could be done to show solidarity with the LGBT community, and the advocates answered that Scott should issue the anti-discrimination order, according to the Equality Florida representatives.
“They sat with us and said, ‘This is something that is important.’ This was an issue they believed could move forward and if there was any problem, any concerns, they would let us know,” Equality Florida Chief Executive Officer Nadine Smith said. But nothing happened. When asked about the matter in Tampa on Tuesday, Scott wouldn’t say whether he would sign such an order.
“I think it’s important that everybody in our state feels comfortable and never feel discriminated against, and that’s what’s important to me,” Scott said.
Reilly and McDougal didn’t respond to emails or a phone call.
Scott has had a chilly relationship with the gay community.
The governor supported Florida’s attempt to defend its ban on gay marriage, which eventually was struck down by federal courts, and he campaigned against adoptions by gays and lesbians in 2010.
After the Pulse attack, he was criticized for calling it a terrorist act but neglecting, initially, to note that it targeted the LGBT community, though he would later mention the community in speeches and interviews. The Pulse gunman had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group.
An executive order from the governor would be important for Jim Brenner and his husband, Chuck Jones, because now there’s too much ambiguity on whether gay state workers are protected from discrimination, said Brenner, who retired in September from his job as fire management administrator at the Florida Forestry Division in Tallahassee. His husband still works for the state Education Department.
Brenner, who is widely published in trade periodicals, said he believes his sexual orientation hindered potential career promotions.
“Peers felt I did a very good job, but I got to a certain point where things just came to a screeching halt,” Brenner said. “I believe it’s because of sexual orientation. Everybody knew that I was living with someone and that someone wasn’t a woman.”
Jim Brenner (left) and Chuck Jones discuss Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s failure to sign an order protecting gay and lesbian state workers from discrimination Wednesday in Tallahassee, Fla.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks June 13, 2016, about details of the fatal shootings at Pulse Orlando nightclub during a media briefing in Orlando, Fla.