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Looking Back on the Ban

Looking Back on the Ban


COMMENTARY: Prospective adoptive parents in Florida no longer have to check a box on a government form that asks "Are you a homosexual?" or "Are you a bisexual?" under penalty of perjury.

A state appeals court last Wednesday declared this country's most notorious antigay state law to be unconstitutional, ending a 33-year ban that prevented gay people from even being considered as adoptive parents in Florida.

The ban's cruel impact went beyond denying children permanent homes and discriminating against gay people who sought to become parents -- it implicitly declared that everyone in the LGBT community was somehow a danger to children. The repeal of the adoption ban fundamentally changes the landscape in Florida for achieving broad-based equality for LGBT people.

Why, after 33 years and numerous legislative and legal challenges, did our side finally prevail?

The decision by Florida's third district court of appeals was the result of a brilliant courtroom battle and more than a decade of activists relentlessly chipping away at the ban through the courts, the legislature, the media, and the inescapable conclusions of valid scientific research.

We won because plaintiff Martin Gill's attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union and the separate legal team assigned to represent the two boys did what the state should have done years ago: Put the welfare of the children first and foremost.

It was achieved through years of mobilizing LGBT parents and their children, by amplifying the voices of the most respected child advocacy groups combined with constant pressure on the media to highlight both the harm done to children and the rank hypocrisy of the ban's defenders.

This day has come because the court finally listened to the evidence and found none to support the law as rational. And the court's decision comes in a political context in which public opinion has shifted in our favor. Years of investment in public education and coalition building allowed our side to build a steady, relentless drumbeat of opposition from across the political spectrum.

Our efforts to remove the ban through the legislature brought thousands to Tallahassee to lobby and tell their stories.

In 2006 legislative aides wept in the corridors following testimony from gay parents and adoption experts at the first senate hearing on the adoption ban since its passage in 1976.

In 2009, when Martin Gill stood on the steps of the old capital to tell his story, he was surrounded by parents from across Florida and flanked by legislators from both chambers and both parties.

This year, when we succeeded in forcing the matter to the floor of the house and the senate for the first time in 33 years, our champions denounced the ban as as a harm to children, an insult to all gay people, and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Not one legislator stood to defend the law.

This moment is also the result of things we could not have anticipated but quickly capitalized on.

George Rekers, the state's expert witness in this case, spectacularly imploded when he was exposed for having traveled for 10 days with a male companion hired through While the initial stories focused on the hypocrisy of an antigay zealot hiring a sultry young man to administer naked massages, the story shifted quickly to an old-fashioned "follow the money" political scandal. Our public records check revealed that Rekers had been paid an astonishing $120,000 and that he had been hired over the objections of the Department of Children and Families and the state's own attorneys. While bloggers and reporters were digging up one salacious detail after the next, they were also keeping the cruel impact of the adoption ban front and center month after month as the court deliberated.

The appellate decision also came as the political winds shifted in Florida at the highest level of government. Gov. Charlie Crist switched from the Republican Party to run as an independent for the U.S. Senate. In the months that followed, Equality Florida opened up discussions with the governor, asking him to ensure that the Gill family would not be torn apart regardless of the outcome of the court case. The governor committed to helping and went further, issuing the most comprehensive statements in favor of LGBT equality ever for a sitting governor in our state.

Finally, this day has come because ordinary people were willing to fight to protect their children and make their families permanent in the ways only adoption can provide.

The court called Martin Gill's parenting of his two boys "nothing short of heroic" -- a word that no doubt embarrasses him. But no other word captures the depth of sacrifice that he and his family have endured. Every Wednesday for more than a year they have waited to hear whether the state was going to let him adopt or take his children away forever. Gill and the plaintiffs who stood up before him have changed the lives of millions of LGBT people in Florida.

We know the far right will try to undo this victory. They've already told reporters they will seek a constitutional amendment perhaps in 2012.

We are readying, along with our allies, for that next challenge, and it will not simply be Florida's fight. Everyone in the country will have a stake in stopping antigay forces here rather than see this become a state-by-state ballot fight.
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