The annual fundraiser was a festive affair filled with Tampa and Hillsborough County Democrats, and the drinks were flowing. The Vault is a spectacular setting; constructed in 1923 as the Exchange National Bank, the Franklin Street building was reopened as an event space last year and features floor-to-ceiling window walls and a second-floor mezzanine, where works of art were auctioned on Saturday to raise funds for the gay rights organization.
Among those Democrats were Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and five of the seven members of Tampa City Council, who were rewarded with EQFL's Voice of Equality Award for being named the number one Florida city on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipality Index.
But Nadine Smith's State of the State address brought a necessarily sobering tone to an otherwise joyous occasion.
She began by noting the most newsworthy events of the past year, including the news that Equality Florida, along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the law firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, is teaming up with six same-sex couples in filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Sunshine State’s gay marriage ban.
Smith said that there has been "extraordinary progress" in seeking a statewide non-discrimination law in Florida (such ordinances exist in places like Tampa and St. Petersburg but not in Hillsborough County), and said "Florida leads the South in terms of support around the range of things that affect our lives."
But she stressed that the gains were due to hard work, and now was not the time to ease up, specifically referring to legislation pending in Arizona that would allow business owners, as long as they assert their religious beliefs, to deny service to gay and lesbian customers.
"We are winning all over the country and we should be thrilled and we should be proud, but also remember in Arizona they’re considering a law that would allow a restaurant or a barber shop or any place of business to say, 'We do not serve your kind,'" Smith told the audience. "So the backlash is real. The progress is real. And this is the moment to lean in like never before. This is the moment to hit the gas."
Smith also reminded the audience that for all the gains made in Florida, more needed to be achieved in a state that has historically been a font of anti-gay sentiment, such as Anita Bryant's successful effort in 1977 to repeal a Miami-Dade County ordinance banning anti-gay discrimination. Smith also referred to the formation of the Johns Committee. That was the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee led by state Senator Charley Eugene Johns that persecuted civil rights groups and gay Floridians in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
"This is the state where the Johns Committee rooted out gay people in the university system and destroyed lives. And this is the state where right now we can’t forget we have people who stay up late at night figuring out how to make our lives harder, and they’re not simply going to go away because the winds of change are in our sails, and we’re on the right side of history. In fact, in these final hours, they’re going to fight harder than they ever have. They’re going to fight dirtier than they ever have. So stand up with us."
Preceding Smith at the microphone was Mayor Buckhorn, joined by Councilmembers Yolie Capin, Mike Suarez, Charlie Miranda, Lisa Montelione and Frank Reddick. Former Councilwoman Mary Alvarez joined the crew on stage to celebrate Tampa's HRC ranking.
The city scored 89 out of a possible 100, jumping from a score of 66 on the index in 2012. The city's overall rating improved in the law enforcement category as well as in local leadership’s public positions and policy efforts.
"I’m proud of that first place," Buckhorn said. "But more importantly I’m proud of how far this city has come. I can't tell you what Hillsborough County is going to do, but I can tell you what this city is going to do."
That was a reference to the distance between the two adjoining jurisdictions when it comes to support of LGBT ordinances. Although the County Commission redeemed itself in the eyes of many activists last year by repealing the county's infamous 2005 ban on gay pride, the commissioners also voted against implementing a domestic partner registry, something now offered by 32 other city or county governments in the state.