Equality Florida says state ‘may not be a safe place’ while local LGBTQ+ groups prepare for major events

After 60 days of vilifying queer kids, trans athletes, drag queens and more, the Florida Legislature ended its most anti-LGBTQ+ session in recent history on May 5.

During the 2023 session — which was ruled over by a Republican supermajority in both the Florida House and Senate — bills banning gender-affirming care, blocking transgender individuals from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity and preventing state venues from hosting drag shows for all ages were passed easily and sent to the desk of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. We also saw an expansion of “Don’t Say Gay or Trans,” which became law last year, increasing the grade restriction from third to eighth. Additionally, the Florida Board of Education approved a further expansion of the law to include all grades through 12th.

The bevy of attacks against the LGBTQ+ community led Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights group, to issue an “Advisory Warning For Travel” on April 11.

The advisory warns of “risks posed to the health, safety, and freedom of those considering short or long term travel, or relocation to the state.” Equality Florida states that it was issued “in response to a wave of safety inquiries Equality Florida has received following the passage of laws that are hostile to the LGBTQ community, restrict access to reproductive health care, repeal gun safety laws, foment racial prejudice, and attack public education by banning books and censoring curriculum.”

“As an organization that has spent decades working to improve Florida’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place to live work and visit, it is with great sadness that we must respond to those asking if it is safe to travel to Florida or remain in the state as the laws strip away basic rights and freedoms,” said Nadine Smith, Equality Florida’s executive director, in a statement.

“While losing conferences, and top students who have written off Florida threatens lasting damage to our state, it is most heartbreaking to hear from parents who are selling their homes and moving because school censorship, book bans and health care restrictions have made their home state less safe for their children,” she continued. “We understand everyone must weigh the risks and decide what is best for their safety, but whether you stay away, leave or remain we ask that you join us in countering these relentless attacks. Help reimagine and build a Florida that is truly safe for and open to all, and where freedom is a reality, not a hollow campaign slogan.”

The advisory mentions that similar travel warnings were issued by the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Florida chapters of the NAACP.

“As the legislative attacks on our community escalated, the number of people who have reached out asking for information about the political landscape, asking the question whether or not it’s safe for them and their families to travel here, the number of those requests have escalated,” says Brandon Wolf, Equality Florida’s press secretary. “So the organization decided that it was time to answer those questions honestly and publicly.”

Wolf says that Equality Florida’s intensions were to provide what he called a “one-stop shop of information” to help individuals and families make informed decisions. He also notes that the advisory warning was not a “blanket recommendation” that LGBTQ+ individuals shouldn’t come to Florida.

“A lot of people are going to decide that Florida is a place they want to be and they want to be on the ground fighting alongside us,” Wolf says. “And we welcome them and look for opportunities to plug them into that fight. Then there are going to be others whose individual situations possibly prevent them from coming here at this time and we respect them too.”

In Equality Florida’s advisory as well as our conversation with Wolf, we weren’t able to get an exact number of safety inquiries the organization has received. Wolf did state that he personally had gone from receiving one or two inquiries per month before this legislative session to several a week.

“I know that is also true for other members of the team,” Wolf says. “I’m also aware that Nadine in her executive director capacity has received outreach from a lot of conference organizers, some of them for very large conferences.”
Equality Florida’s warning comes as many queer travelers are planning vacations to a state that is known for its tourism, especially during the summer where LGBTQ+ events are expected to bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to Central Florida and Tampa Bay.

During the first weekend of June alone, more than 150,000 LGBTQ+ travelers visit Orlando for GayDayS, One Magical Weekend and Girls in Wonderland. The weekend features host hotels, pool parties, trips to the theme parks, The Pride Cup and more. After returning last year from a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers were planning to go all out but are now concerned that Equality Florida’s travel warning may keep people away.

“Equality Florida issued an irresponsible, hastily crafted, and fear mongering travel advisory without consulting LGBTQ+ chambers, gay-friendly convention and visitor bureaus, Pride festivals, business leaders or LGBTQ+ event promoters,” says Billy Looper, co-founder of One Magical Weekend and the KindRED Pride Foundation. “Five weeks from one of the largest and most iconic events in our LGBTQ+ history — Gay Disney — they could have instead sent out a positive call to action to flock to Florida, support us who live here in Florida by showing up in RED like we have since 1991.”

The travel warning surprised many community organizations who said Equality Florida did not reach out to them before issuing the advisory.

“I was in Vegas at a conference and had it forwarded to me,” says Joseph Clark, owner of GayDayS. “When I finally had a chance to read through it, to me it just didn’t make sense at all. It’s interesting that we weren’t reached out to to even be given a heads up, let alone asked our thoughts on it.”

Rachel Covello, publisher of the LGBTQ+ travel website Out Coast and organizer of the upcoming inaugural Florida Out Coast Convention, or FLOCC — coming to Tampa Aug. 1-3 — was also in Vegas at the time. She received a message from a colleague in the community.

“In the beginning I didn’t know how to respond,” Covello says. “Part of me was like, ‘I promote travel to Florida for the LGBT community, and then the advisory basically says, ‘Hey, be careful about traveling to Florida if you’re LGBT.’ So obviously my immediate reaction was, ‘this is going to make my job harder.’ Not that it isn’t already hard enough.”

Concerns about the release of Equality Florida’s travel advisory were echoed by organizers of Orlando’s Come Out With Pride and St Pete Pride, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ Pride celebration.

In a statement to Watermark, organizers of St Pete Pride said “We became aware when the advisory was published. St Pete Pride believes that LGBTQIA+ individuals should be informed about the current political climate of Florida, and separately, St. Petersburg, so that they can make the best decisions for themselves regarding travel to Florida and attending St Pete Pride events.”

“My overall response to the travel advisory, I understand the principal behind it and appreciate Equality Florida’s efforts; however, I really wish they would have handled it differently and had a conversation with those of us who would be directly impacted by such an advisory,” says Tatiana Quiroga, Come Out With Pride’s executive director.

While not privy to all of the conversations that Smith and the Equality Florida board members had before drafting the advisory, Wolf says it is his understanding that “Nadine and other members of our leadership team did have conversations with people who are business owners and people who are impacted by travel and tourism.”

When asked for the specific organizations Equality Florida spoke to, Watermark was advised that they would need to get back to us with that list. The specific names were not provided as of press time.

“Equality Florida issued a travel warning based on an unknown number of inquiries due to the current political situation in Florida. Now, the LGBTQ+ organizations that promote Florida as a safe and welcoming destination are fielding those calls from potential visitors that are afraid to travel here,” says Tom Christ, co-founder of One Magical Weekend and the KindRED Pride Foundation. “There is no way to quantify the number of visitors who will not travel to Orlando this year based on this warning and its economic impact on those LGBTQ+ owned businesses.”

The impact of Equality Florida’s travel advisory has already begun to show its effects on some of the organizations. The Pride Cup, an annual LGBTQ+ multi-sport competition held during the first weekend in June in Orlando, was anticipating nearly a dozen sports to be a part of the weekend; however, after the advisory was released, organizers behind the dodgeball and flag football events pulled out. Between those two sports, they were expected to bring 400 athletes to Orlando. The event further lost over 200 kickball players although that sport is still continuing. The financial impact of losing major sports from The Pride Cup grows when you factor in the vendors that were being brought in and the workers being hired for the event.

“We agree 100% with the fight against the horrific laws being passed here, but we disagree 100% with their fear-based fundraising strategy that has caused immeasurable collateral damage — mostly against the community they say they are trying to protect,” Looper says. “They argue that a ‘wave of inquiries’ called for this drastic travel advisory. However, without consulting anyone outside of their organization and without calling attention to the LGBTQ+ friendly destinations here like Orlando, South Florida, Key West, and Tampa/St. Pete, they were negligent in representing our community.”
And while Come Out With Pride is still more than five months away, Quiroga says a “large national sponsor” will not be participating this year.

“Due to the advisory, they do not feel that it would be safe to encourage their team members to gather,” she says. “I obviously can’t predict how many more of those we will have but it was pretty surprising to hear.”

Wolf says that while Equality Florida feels issuing the travel advisory was the best course of action, the door still remains open for further conversations and that many discussions will be taking place in the coming weeks. Wolf added that since the advisory came out, several of the organizations who spoke with Watermark for this story have already been in touch and spoken with Equality Florida.

“The first person I reached out to was Nadine,” Covello says. “This was more of me saying, ‘we want to help but we also need to keep spreading the message about the inclusive places in Florida. I don’t want to tell people not to come here.’ That’s just not the message we’re going to send.”

Covello says her intent wasn’t to criticize the advisory but to advocate for LGBTQ+ businesses in Florida. The organization, she says, was receptive.

“There are still places that need support and need dollars, and LGBT business owners that rely on tourism that we want to support,” Covello says. “We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing and educate people.”

With the legislative session now finished, Wolf says he anticipates that additional resources will be coming from Equality Florida to “help people get a really clear idea of how they can support those businesses and events.”

Equality Florida’s travel warning has led One Magical Weekend to step up its online campaigns, adding the hashtag #FlockToFlorida to its push to encourage one million people to wear red shirts on the first Saturday in June as a part of Red Shirt Pride Day.

“Gay Disney is an event that was a lightning rod in the gay community in the 1990s,” Christ says. “People were not warned to stay away, visitors ‘flocked to Florida’ from around the world to show their support of our LGBTQ+ community. Disney should also be praised for their strong stand to say that ‘everyone is welcome in the Walt Disney World Resorts.’ We call anyone who disagrees with the politicians in Tallahassee’s unjust and unfair laws to stand with Florida and be visible on Saturday, June 3, 2023 by wearing a red T-shirt and use the hashtags #RSPD, #FlockToFlorida and #VoteChange whereever you are and let the world see that we will not allow this.”

Quiroga echoes that same message. As an LGBTQ+ parent, she says it is a scary time in Florida right now that has triggered a lot of serious conversations in her household, but she also says she is a big believer in “call people in, don’t call people out.”

“Personally what I would like to see is a focus on the flourishing community that we have,” she says. “Yes, these are challenging times for our community but at the same time we have a thriving LGBTQ+ community here in Central Florida. We have huge community support, we know we have plenty of allies, so why not look for that support versus turn people away?”

The emphasis on acceptance in Florida’s more progressive areas was something St Pete Pride shared as well.
“St. Petersburg has been an incredible LGBTQIA+ city to visit for years and continues to be a top destination for LGBTQIA+ travel,” the organization stated. “With a large and wide variety of LGBTQIA+ owned and operated businesses and organizations we live in a place that is markedly different from the rest of Florida. St. Petersburg is a safe haven with a variety of options for visitors.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch agrees, as do his counterparts in major cities throughout the state. He, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor released proclamations declaring their cities safe and affirming for LGBTQ+ Floridians on May 3.

The local leaders did so as a part of GLSEN’s Rise Up Campaign. Founded in 1990, the organization works nationwide to build a better world for LGBTQ+ students. The initiative “calls on every adult and ally in a position of authority who supports equal educational opportunity and believes that schools must be free from transphobia, homophobia, racism, and all forms of bigotry and discrimination to rise up and say so.”

“LGBTQ+ youth in Florida have faced relentless attacks from extremist politicians intent on silencing, excluding and erasing them,” GLSEN Executive Director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers said in a statement. “We’re grateful for the leaders who have pledged to rise up in support of LGBTQ+ youth and policies that promote safe and inclusive schools.

“We stand in solidarity with LGBTQ+ youth and supportive parents and educators in Florida, and we’re never going to stop fighting for safe, inclusive, and affirming learning environments for all students,” they added.

“Florida’s young people and their families deserve a state that has their backs — a state committed to giving everyone a chance to thrive,” Wolf also noted in GLSEN’s release. “Instead, right wing leaders in Tallahassee have plunged our education system into chaos to score political points.

“As the governor and his acolytes have used classrooms as political battlegrounds, local leaders have continued to push back and stand with students and families,” he continued. “The Rise Up campaign sends a clear message that Floridians are resisting DeSantis’ war on academic freedom and inclusion because young people and their families are worth fighting for.”

“Cities have really been leading the way,” Wolf also tells Watermark. “As someone who has benefited from the inclusive environment in Orlando, I can speak personally that Orlando is not like the political climate around the state, but that doesn’t exempt cities like ours from the impacts from some of these pieces of legislation.”

He points out that even within LGBTQ+ friendly cities, transgender individuals using a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity or having an undocumented immigrant as a passenger in your car can still get you charged with a crime because of these bills.

“Those things apply statewide,” Wolf says. “So again our goal was to tell people the real honest truth about the political climate so they can make the right decisions for themselves.”

Some organizations have said that Equality Florida is sending a contradictory message, asking community members to be more visible but also issuing a travel advisory. Wolf disagrees.

“I think we can say to people, ‘here is the political landscape, here is what you should know about the state of Florida right now just so you can be prepared. Here are ways to get plugged into our community, whether you decide to be here or not.’ I think you can say that and at the same time, say ‘we need people to be in the fight,’” Wolf says. “I don’t think it’s contradictory to say ‘this is a moment for us to get in the fight’ AND ‘if you’re a trans woman in New York City, you should just be aware of the bathroom policy that is nearing the finish line.’ I think we can do both of those things at the same time.”
As we draw closer to the summer, it will be up to each LGBTQ+ vacationer to decide whether Florida is the place for them to be right now, but if safety is their main concern, several event organizers say Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg are some of the safest places for queer travelers.

“I think that local officials have made it a safe place to be,” Clark says. “You can go anywhere in the world and there’s a potential for danger … but as a community we are a real tight knit community, and not just as an LGBTQ community but as a Central Florida community, we are real tight. I would disagree with anyone saying it is not safe to come to Central Florida.”

“In Florida there are a lot of destinations that have a history of being inclusive and welcoming,” says Covello. “But I think what has been more impressive to me … is seeing all these smaller communities that you wouldn’t expect — ones out in rural areas that are popping up.

“The problem is when we start avoiding Florida and we don’t come to the state, those communities that have the potential to create change lose the support needed to continue creating change,” she says. “I think that’s really important to think about.”

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