Retaking a Reputation for Tolerance

Under The Hood

Sarasota seems to be developing a different profile in national headlines, one of atypical intolerance. Attention came this month for a few reasons, most recently when a gay Pine View student revealed he could be censored during a graduation speech if he touches on political issues. Before that, the Washington Post took a look at a proliferation of right-wing media setting up shop here, and ended up discussing the elevation of politicians promoting the most right wing of messages.

All this comes as Florida too frequently lands in headlines for approving arguably extremist policies on minority and LGBTQ rights.

Working in Sarasota well over a decade, I must say this prejudiced visage does not reflect the community I know. Yet these headlines were earned. There’s been a lurch to the far right in local politics over the past decade — moving past low taxes or regulation and toward gross bigotry and a denial of reality. Now this shift caught the attention of national press who wonder how Rumble, Cyber Ninjas, The Hollow and Trump Social all ended up with Sarasota County addresses.

This shocks those who know Sarasota so long welcomed a diversity of people. The city in 2007 made national news as the first municipality to consider hiring a city administrator fired in Pinellas County after she came out as transgender. While Susan Stanton didn’t get the job, she felt welcome enough here to apply for a position again years later.

Governments here also adopted Human Rights Ordinances before many other jurisdictions in the state, largely thanks to a drive from Ken Shelin, an openly gay former Sarasota City Commissioner. Shortly after marriage equality became law in Florida, Shelin, chair of Equality Florida at the time, also held a public wedding here, demonstrating the community’s embracing atmosphere

Sarasota also knows pain. It mourned when the first victim identified in the Pulse shooting turned out to be Eddie Sotomayor, a local travel agent and one of 49 killed by a terrorist at an Orlando gay club.

Other stories never made headlines. The Sarasota city employee who came out as trans and found a nurturing embrace from co-workers. The transgender singer who performed at high-profile events in town before and after transitioning, always greeted by cheers and applause. 

One wonders how we got here. I spoke this week to Zander Moricz, the class president at Pine View trying to decide what to do about graduation. He doesn’t want to disrupt an evening of celebration of his peers, but remains shook administrators he always worked with well have threatened to cut his microphone if he discusses Florida’s new ‘don’t say gay’ law. He’s a plaintiff challenging the statute in court.

He considers Pine View a safe place for LGBTQ youth, but doesn’t necessarily feel the same about Sarasota County. In Osprey, he has often felt a cold shoulder from elders within the community. I suspect cooler heads will prevail here, and Moricz will be able to touch on topics important to him while being coached away from the most incendiary language. But my greatest fear is this will lead Moricz, once his cap flies in the air, to leave town forever before his mortarboard reaches the ground.

There lies the problem with such an intolerant law as “don’t say gay,” legislation supported by nearly all lawmakers in the region (cheers to Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, for bucking party lines and voting no). It purports to be a “parental rights bill,” but creates no new rights. Rather, it intends to assuage those who fear schools turning their child transgender if they dare hear a word about gender identity before fourth grade. Never mind the rights of parents who want their children to never feel ashamed at school of who they are or what they feel.

I won’t name the pols here who too frequently empower the oppression of silence. I’ll resist also calling out those who even recently espoused tolerance but now cower to emboldened extremists. But I know that latter group would bend back to sanity with eagerness if constituents who for years ensured Sarasota’s reputation as a home for all filled their email inboxes with greater numbers than those gripped by fear of all that’s different.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ MEDIA.

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