February 3, 2023
Nadine Smith is a Florida Icon

Photo: Mark Wemple

"I believe Florida can become a leader in human rights, not a state that has to be dragged forward," says Nadine Smith.

Nadine Smith is a Florida Icon

LGBTQ rights advocate, founding executive director of Equality Florida, St. Petersburg; age 54

| 6/25/2020

My father was in the Air Force.My mother was born in Liverpool and became a naturalized American citizen, so I spent time in England, spent time in the U.S., spent a lot of time on military bases, but when I talk about my home town, it’s Panama City.

I got good grades, was in honor societies and was class president, all that overachieving stuff that oftentimes LGBTQ people do. There’s a book called “The Best Little Boy in the World” that sort of addresses the propensity of LGBTQ kids to be overachievers in so many ways because of the fear that you had to sort of bank enough points so that when your secret is revealed you might not lose your family, your friends, your standing. Among our staff and volunteers, we sort of joke that we have a disproportionate number of senior class presidents and valedictorians. But there’s also a bit of a sinister side to it, which is feeling like you always have to excel simply to be treated in an ordinary fashion.

In forming the state organization, one of the commitments we made was that we would never allow there to be a session in Tallahassee where our community was not present and holding accountable those who ask for our votes.

We’ve blocked some pretty egregious legislation that attacked our rights, our families, our children, particularly in recent years when there have been efforts to undermine local control. Sixty percent of the population in Florida is protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by local ordinance. So when you strip away local protections, you take those rights away.

Virginia became the first Southern state to pass anti-discrimination protections. And congratulations to Virginia, but Florida should be embarrassed by that.

I went to the 1987 march on Washington, which was the first LGBTQ march I’d ever attended, and it was amazing. It was a life-changing experience for me. It was the first time I saw black LGBTQ people. I remember standing on the side of the road as the march went by. There was a little bend in the road and this little rise, and over that rise there came a wave of black women, and I just remember realizing that I was crying because it had tapped into the extraordinary isolation I had felt growing up in the Panhandle.

My dad would say: ‘Don’t ever think you’re better than anybody else, and don’t you ever let anyone make you think they’re better than you.’

I come from a family that has always valued activism. My grandparents were part of the first integrated farming cooperative in the Mississippi delta.

There’s a presidential election coming, and Florida is always in the spotlight. We will do everything in our power to ensure that our constituents are informed and aware of where a candidate stands on the issues. And we’ve got to be vigilant to protect democracy and ensure our constituents have access to the ballot and that there aren’t roadblocks put in place with the purpose of suppressing the vote and affecting the outcome.

When I was a kid and went to see Superman — me and my buddy John — we watched it, walked out of the theater, walked right back in and watched it again. When that was over, we walked out of the theater and walked back in and watched it again — three times in a row. I couldn’t wait to be an adult because I thought I could see movies any time I wanted. I couldn’t understand why my parents were home watching the news when they could have been at the movie theater.

I have discovered if you cook something over a wood fire, it improves the taste so dramatically that everything takes like it’s gourmet.

My wife, Andrea, actually used to have the same job I have but in Kentucky, and I won the coin flip so she moved here. We have a son, an 8 year old, and he’s hilarious. People said having a kid would pull me away from activism, but, if anything, it has burned away all of the non-essential things in my mind. It has sharpened my focus on creating a world that I had a right to be born in but wasn’t and that I will do my best to make sure he gets to experience.

When I was experiencing racism, I could talk to my family and talk to black teachers. There was a shared understanding and experience that gave me support. There was nobody I could talk to when it came to being gay. Now you have support groups in schools. You have young people who don’t have a coming-out story because they were never in the closet.

The erosion of journalism as a profession is costing us. What’s happening now is what George Orwell warned us about: If you can make the truth not matter, then you can get away with anything. So hats off to everyone who is still out there doing investigative journalism, asking tough questions, holding people accountable even as the resources dwindle and even as the president of the United States actively foments hatred toward them.

I’m not a big fan of super-developed beaches. But those places where they’ve preserved some of that wildness — the Steinhatchee, the Withlacoochee – those places soothe my soul.

We secured marriage equality in the state of Florida before the Supreme Court compelled the country to, and I’m proud of that because I think it’s an indication of what we can be if we break loose from the grip of a small and shrinking and fearful minority that thinks equality for others means less for them.

At the end of the day, the thing that motivates me in doing this work is that I want to be the adult I wish had been there for me when I was a kid.


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