Equality Florida’s CEO, Nadine Smith, turns the big 5-0 but shows no signs of slowing down

Nadine Smith, the co-founder and chief executive officer of the state’s largest LGBT organization, Equality Florida, has celebrated several big milestones in her life in the last year. First, she marked three decades of activism when the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization, which she served on the founding board of, celebrated 30 years of helping LGBT youth across the globe. Another milestone (thanks to her efforts), she and her wife Andrea (married in 2009) are recognized as a married couple in their home state of Florida. Now,most recently another milestone: Smith turned 50 years old inAugust. Smith spoke with me while vacationing in Vermont via telephone where we discussed activism, turning 50 and… country music?

Tell me how you first got involved in with LGBT activism?
I started at the University of South Florida in 1985, they had a group on campus that was mostly a social group, and it was mostly gay men. There were a couple of us lesbians who tried to make it an organization with broader appeal. By doing that, it led me to end up in England where we started the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization. I’m grateful that USF was the gateway into this organization that shaped my politics, and it’s an organization that continues to serve LGBT young people worldwide today and has grown far beyond our imaginations as the founding board.

What was your first impression of being an activist?
It was more in the line of consciousness-raising. There wasn’t so much of a push for change as it was finding each other and not feeling alone in the world. There weren’t demands that were made, so when I went to the international organization there were demands, they were saying policies had to change, we had demonstrations and we risked arrest. It was the kind of activism I’d never seen, and it was a kind of direct action I never really experienced, so to me that became a framework of me imagining the world as I wished it to be.

What was the first positive memory you have about being an activist?
When I was a part of the founding board for the International Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization, a group of our guys were beat up by some US military men in West Berlin. There was such a galvanizing response from the community – feminist organizations, unions, lawyer groups – that within the space of maybe two days, we had the largest demonstration in the largest square in what was then West Berlin. It was filled with straight people right along our party band of youth activists demanding that the US government apologize for the attack on these young men. The US military tried to shut down the demonstration, and at each turn, someone else would step up and help us. I will never forget, standing there in this huge square, it was the first time I’ve heard that song, it’s from La Cage aux Folles, it goes “hey, if your glad to be gay then tell them,” and I’m standing next to a man and a woman, the man had his daughter on his shoulders, and they were German and they were singing that song at the top of their lungs. I had never experienced that kind of solidarity with LGBT activism before. That was a very magical moment.

What comes natural to you as an activist and what have you had to learn along the way?
You know, I don’t think anything came natural to me. Honestly, I began this work feeling inadequate to the task. I was nervous about speaking in public. I had grown up in the panhandle [of Florida] and internalized the message that I wasn’t supposed to exist, and if I did exist, then I better hide, and if I didn’t hide, the punishment for that could be physical.

I think the biggest lesson I learned from that was show up. There is no certificate you get to become an activist; you just start showing up and doing whatever it is you can do. I remember years ago watching this woman give a speech. If you were critiquing it you might say it was the worst speech you’ve ever seen. She held the paper inches from her nose, she read it, her voice was shaking, she was stumbling over the words, but it was also one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard. She was willing to do it, no matter what. She didn’t care that she wasn’t some great auditor. This was a message that needed to be delivered and she was willing to do it, despite being afraid. For me that became an inspiration. I don’t have to be the best at anything; I just need to show up. That’s the biggest lesson, show up and speak truth to power.

2015 was a huge year for the LGBT community in the state of Florida. What do you feel has been the biggest accomplishment of Equality Florida this year, and what has been the biggest challenge?
There was a moment this year when Florida could have easily succumbed to being one of the states where people would get turned away. Where individual clerks ignored a federal judge’s order. We were right on the verve of seeing that same kind of thing unfold in Florida. It took a great deal of work, including a lot of our team and legal partners working through the holidays to stop that from happening. We had to counter the message that compliance was optional. We had to create an environment in which every clerk knew what their job was and what the consequence was if they failed to do their duties. I think it was important to see as they headed into their deliberations that a state like Florida, in which the governor’s mansion, the cabinet and both houses – all Republican – seamlesslytransitioned into a marriage equality state.

How are you feeling about turning 50 this year?
I love it. It is so much better than not turning 50.

After doing it for the last 30 years, if you were to stop activism tomorrow, are you satisfied with the legacy you left, or is there more that you want to accomplish?
Oh, I think there is a lot more to accomplish before I’m done. You know, Julian Bond passed away quite recently, and this is someone who is a hero that I had the privilege to work with on several occasions. He was the honorary chair in our efforts to stop the passage of the marriage ban in 2008. He was instrumental in convening the first LGBT discussions within the NAACP. This is a man who lived his whole life walking the talk no matter what uniform he wore or what organization he was a part of. It’s amazing to see him first as a young man standing in the center of so much hatred, then as an elder statesman continuing to be a trailblazeruntil the end. That inspires me. I hope my whole life will be spent enjoying myself and enjoying the people around me and making this a world every child deserves to be born into.

Tell me something about yourself most people don’t know.
I listen to some country music (laughs); a lot of people don’t know that about me.

Who are some of your favorites?
I like the older country; I like Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings], but you know, I like the Dixie Chicks, too. You know what else? I was in the Junior Miss Pageant in my high school. (laughs)

Really? Did you win?
No (laughs), I did not win.

Finally, was there anything you wanted to add?
I do want to say this, the best part of this job are the people I meet – smart, compassionate, talented people, many of which are volunteers. The people of Equality Florida run the gambit from 20 to 60, and every one of them is dedicated and brave. I really am honored to work with each of them.

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