Long before becoming one of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People, Nadine Smith was arrested at Largo City Hall for handing someone a flier emblazoned with “Don’t Discriminate” while supporting a transgender city manager.
That was 16 years ago, and Smith returned to the government building Tuesday for a Pride flag-raising ceremony. That story was one of many she relayed to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club to highlight the cyclical nature of civil rights.
The St. Petersburg resident and cofounder of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida compared discriminatory language and legislation to Stephen King’s It during Wednesday’s discussion.
“It’s like this evil clown that shows up every few decades,” Smith said. “And sort of spews this constant hateful vibe and divides the community.”
Equality Florida was formed in 1997 to help end sex and gender discrimination and promote civil rights. Marriage equality was one of its early focuses, and the topic du jour when Smith last spoke before the Club nearly 20 years ago.
The courts have allowed same-sex marriage in Florida since January 2015 after ruling that a ban adopted the year prior was unconstitutional. Smith expressed her pride in Equality Florida’s work but noted that with “great progress comes great pushback.”
The 2007 Largo City Hall incident stemmed from officials firing city manager Susan Stanton, afrer announcing announced she was trans and would undergo gender reassignment. While those seeking equal treatment and opportunities have seen substantial progress in the decades since, Smith expressed her concerns that society is taking steps backward.
“I bring this up as a reminder of the distance that we have traveled,” she said. “But I’m also returning to a moment where some of the same ugly rhetoric that was directed at Susan’s family has now become commonplace again.”
Equality Florida and the Human Rights Campaign issued a travel advisory in May due to the state’s “most anti-LGBTQ legislative session in history.” In addition to legislation “hostile” to that community, the organizations highlighted laws they believe restrict reproductive health care access, promote racial prejudice and “attack public education by banning books and censoring curriculum.”
Smith said lawmakers are framing the LGBTQ community’s mere existence as “a threat to children.” That then promotes violence among otherwise rational people, she added.
She called those efforts a political ploy and noted that many other states introduced similar legislation to appease a specific demographic. However, she said Florida is the “perfect storm” due to its governor and a former president – now a resident – running for the nation’s top office in 2024 and vying for the same voters.
“It’s not that we’re the only state facing this – but we’re the state facing all of it,” Smith added. “We are literally the front line.”
While she called the recent discriminatory legislation and rhetoric the latest episode of an evil clown returning to torment a community, Smith also noted that discussions like Wednesday’s have fostered several triumphs.
She highlighted the progress made in cities like St. Petersburg, which has scored a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Municipal Equality Index for nine consecutive years. Former Mayor Rick Kriseman attended Wednesday’s event, and Smith and others credited him for laying a framework that Mayor Ken Welch is now building upon.
Smith advised people who might feel overwhelmed by the preponderance of divisive issues to focus on a singular cause and prioritize daily improvement. She also expressed hope for new generations and encouraged attendees to “breathe through the fear,” let go of hate and recognize that people are intrinsically more alike than different.
While much of the presentation focused on similarities between past and present challenges, Smith relayed one critical difference in the ongoing quest for equality and inclusivity:
“We’re fighting to preserve things that did not exist when I was growing up.”
Press the play triangle below to listen to Nadine Smith at Tiger Bay. Audio courtesy of Radio St Pete.