ORLANDO — It was in January 2015 when Orlando’s mayor, Buddy Dyer, took part in a groundbreaking ceremony at City Hall.
Just six years after Florida voters had approved a referendum to ban same-sex marriage, scores of gay and lesbian couples from around the state lined up in front of City Hall to doing something many thought they’d never be able to do: tie the knot.
It was a historic day, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized gay marriage across the United States. Mayor Dyer was on hand to perform the mass wedding ceremonies with 44 couples, and he told the crowd that included more than 200 people, “You’re part of history today.”
Dyer, who was just re-elected with 72% of the vote on Nov. 5, got more good news this month, when the Human Rights Campaign gave the city a perfect score on issues benefitting the LGBTQ community.
What is the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Index?
Dyer, who convinced the Orlando City Commission to approve an anti-discrimination measure for the LGBTQ community during his first term in office, welcomed the high rating from the nation’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.
“I am proud that the City of Orlando has once again obtained a perfect score in the Municipal Equality Index,” Dyer noted. “Our community is welcoming and inclusive and as a city, we remain committed to continuing to work together to promote diversity and equality in everything that we do.”
On Nov. 19, HRC released its annual Municipal Equality Index (MEI). The City of Orlando got the highest score of 100 for the 6th-consecutive year.
HRC’s report evaluates 506 cities on 25 different criteria, including:
- Non-discrimination laws;
- Municipal employment policies like transgender-inclusive insurance coverage
- All-user restrooms
- Non-discrimination requirements for contractors
- Inclusiveness of city services
- Law enforcement, including hate crimes reporting
- and municipal leadership on matters of equality.
Orlando was one of 88 municipalities nationally and six in Florida to get a perfect score. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who is gay, welcomed the rating and said it was well-deserved.
“Considering the state of national affairs, I am glad that cities are leading in the fair treatment of their LGBTQ+ citizens,” she said. “Orlando continues to value the diversity and unique contributions of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Why Did Orlando get Such a High Equality Ranking?
Since 2002, Orlando has banned discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Several other Central Florida cities do as well, including Leesburg, Mascotte, Mount Dora, and Tampa. The City of Orlando has been considered a leader in the Sunshine State in establishing local programs, ordinances, and laws that benefit the LGBTQ+ community, including:
- Installing the first all-user multi-stall restroom in a public building in Florida for transgender individuals (at City Hall)
- Passing a resolution to support LGBTQ owned-businesses
- Creating a database of certified LGBTQ+ businesses
- Providing educational opportunities for those businesses to learn about the city’s procurement process
- Adopting a Transgender Persons Policy for the Orlando Police Department with guidelines for appropriate treatment of transgender individuals.
- Providing more than $200,000 in funding in the past two years to LGBTQ+ organizations such as One Orlando Alliance, Zebra Coalition, LGBT+ Center Orlando, Inc. and Hope & Help Center of Central Florida.
The 2019 Municipal Equality Index (MEI) is available online. HRC President Alphonso David issued a statement noting that inclusive and welcoming cities like Orlando are “sending a clear message that the fair and equal treatment of our community, our families and our neighbors is a true American value. This year’s Municipal Equality Index shows that across the country, city leaders are working tirelessly to ensure that their constituents can secure housing, make a living and participate in community life without being discriminated against because of who they are.”
Why Gay People Love Living in Orlando
A 2015 report by Gallup found that Orlando has the 20th highest percentage of the adult population who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender. That put Orlando in the same company as other cities across the U.S. with a high LGBTQ population, including San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Austin; New Orleans; and Seattle. In Florida, Jacksonville had the highest-ranking of the state’s metro areas, coming in at No. 16, while Miami ranked at No. 17 and Tampa at No. 21.
The Orlando area is also popular with gay visitors. The City Beautiful is home to Parliament House, one of the largest and oldest gay resorts in the region; Hamburger Mary’s, the restaurant popularly billed as ‘an open-air bar for open-minded people’; Gay Days at Walt Disney World, a week-long celebration that continues to grow in size each year; and Barcodes Orlando, a gay bar located in the popular College Park neighborhood.
Orlando’s gay community has also known great tragedy. On June 12, 2016, the city of Orlando experienced a devastating trauma when 49 people were murdered by a lone gunman at Pulse, a gays nightclub, and 68 others were seriously injured. Those innocent lives were taken by domestic terrorist Omar Mateen, who was himself killed by Orlando police.
But in the days after the massacre, city residents came together in remarkable ways, holding rallies to show their support for the victims, their families, and the survivors. Memorials were created to pay tribute to them, and placed around in the city.
The outpouring of support was so strong that it created an enduring legacy that’s now an exhibit, the One Orlando Collection, being hosted at the Orange County Regional History Center, a museum housed in a historic courthouse in downtown Orlando.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.