In a state known for its splashy White Parties and a Key West New Year's Eve that features the ceremonial lowering of a drag queen named Sushi in a giant red pump, nobody figured Utah would get marriage equality first. "Utah was a huge surprise," said Mikael Audebert, president of MBA Orlando, Central Florida's LGBT chamber of commerce. "Florida is still an unknown."
There are, of course, two Floridas. There's the one that's known for South Beach and Wilton Manors, and that's the state Nate Silver projects will, by 2016, hit 53-percent of voters supporting a same sex marriage ballot initiative.
Then there's the other Florida. This is the Florida that looks much more like Alabama and Georgia, and as Miami New Times' Kyle Munzenrieder notes, it's the place where any marriage equality initiative would fail with just 53 percent:
"You need 60 percent to pass a constitutional amendment in Florida, which means the state could still be at least a decade away from seeing marriage equality."
And yet, Florida activists who've watched the dominoes fall from Vermont to Hawaii don't see themselves sitting on the sidelines. "I'm proud of where our country is headed, and I'm proud to be a part of this," said Andrew Springer, founder of Orlando's Wedding Alliance, a nonprofit created three years ago to support marriage equality—and to serve couples who want to hold commitment ceremonies in Florida. For Springer, it's inevitable that his event space near Orlando's picturesque Lake Eola will move beyond commitment ceremonies and host weddings fully recognized by the law. "I can't tell you how excited I'll be when Florida is one of them."
When might that be? The group Equality Florida has set a goal: three years. "In the fight for LGBT equality, Florida leads among Southern states and has become the new frontline," says Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, the largest civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for Florida's LGBT community. "The next three years are primed for huge breakthroughs in this battleground state that will ripple nationwide."
In the meantime, people like Mikael Audebert are following the money--by one estimate, 154 million dollars that Central Florida alone will lose over the next three years by failing to pass equality. A financial analysis drafted for Equality Florida concludes:
In addition to the immediate loss of economical impact for businesses directly or indirectly involved in the wedding industry, Florida stands to lose on tourism. LGBT individuals for the vast majority tend to support States and countries that have LGBT friendly policies towards their citizens. While Orlando is currently the second tourist destination in the US (after Las Vegas), it is number 9 and 10 respectively among Gays and Lesbians.
Last but not least, it has been determined and proven through several interviews and studies that Orlando and Florida in general are and remain at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting qualified workforce. As more and more States move towards marriage equality, employers will continue to struggle transferring or bringing highly qualified LGBT employees who would end up losing their rights by moving to our State.
In the next 12 months, an estimated 50,000 same sex couples will get married in one of the 16 States that have enacted The Freedom to Marry legislation. That is an estimated $150 million spent on honeymoons over the next 12 months. According to the latest U.S. census, there are over 620,000 LGBT couples living under the same roof in the United States
alone. As an international destination, Orlando also has, in the coming years, the opportunity to promote itself as a honeymoon destination for LGBT people living in any of the 17 countries that have enacted Freedom to Marry legislations. One of these countries, Brazil, currently represents the largest contingent of tourists in Orlando.
In January, his group will launch an LGBT marketing effort aimed at luring same sex newlyweds to Central Florida. "why not bring individuals that are able to get married in all 18 states in the US right now to Florida for a honeymoon," asks Audebert. "The message won't be any different than it is when it comes to targeting other groups. It's going to be Orlando makes a very good honeymoon destination. Come and give us a try."
But the campaign will be decidedly different. With online ads and in-store messaging in Macy's stores in the states that have passed marriage equality, Orlando hopes to send a subtle signal to LGBT couples: we may not have equality in Florida yet, but we're most definitely in this fight with you. And perhaps even more importantly, coming here, rather than Hawaii, will help us get marriage equality passed sooner. "The legislature does not support equality, but the people in the state of Florida overwhelmingly support equality. So by not coming and by not supporting the state, you're actually hurting the LGBT community in Orlando and in Florida instead of actually helping it."
Audebert and others note that Florida, from Key West to Fort Lauderdale, has a vibrant and inclusive LGBT community, and even at the border of red state florida and blue state Florida, Orlando has made its own reputation as an LGBT hotspot, for singles, marrieds, and families. "Orlando is an LGBT friendly destination, and it's our job to actually show them that it's the case," said Audebert. "Disney has been offering weddings to LGBT individuals for the longest time in terms of ceremonies as well."
But being on the wrong side of the equality divide comes up over and over again as marketing executives try to sell Central Florida. The argument—why should we support you, when you don't support us—is tough to counter. Audebert says he experienced just that kind of pushback while working to land the 2018 Gay Games. Why reward a state that's still hostile to marriage?
The counter-argument, just like the city's pitch to newlyweds, is this: check airfare to marriage-friendly Hawaii and get back to us. "We are the cheapest destination, and yet we offer all those fantastic activities and elements in Orlando that probably should make Hawaii jealous," said Audebert. And short of marriage, the community does support you. "We have the largest Pride event, we have Gay Days in May and June of each year, so there are already some LGBT events that are happening in Orlando that should make people comfortable about how friendly we are."
In February, President Obama endorsed Orlando as host city for the Gay Games, writing a letter that's believed to be the first time a president has expressed support for the Games, or any LGBT event of similar size.
Should the Games come to Florida—and Equality Florida's goal be reached—visiting athletes could celebrate their performance with a Florida wedding in Andrew Springer's stylish venue. "Honestly I feel we are a piece of it. The Central Florida community, Mikael has been a great champion for us, especially with the Wedding Alliance being a very new nonprofit organization, has taken us and we've been partnering. It's been a great relationship. But that's how the community has to act, together, all of these organizations that are in Central Florida need to be together combined, so we can make this happen."
"With one third of the States now allowing same sex marriages to take place, and data becoming available as to the positive social and economical impact of such laws," Audebert says, "I am confident our legislators will take a second look at our laws and take the appropriate steps to ensure Florida does not become the center of injustice and inequality."