Florida Democratic Party Elects Openly-Gay Vice Chair

Alan Clendenin remembers when Anita Bryant hawked orange juice and bigotry in the late 1970s. And as the newly-elected Vice Chair of the Florida Democratic Party (FDP), he wants to work to ensure the existence of a state party dedicated to defending all of its ideals, including LGBT rights.

Clendenin, 53, who serves as a member of the Democratic National Committee, lost his bid for state party chairmanship last month to fellow FDP member Allison Tant of Tallahassee by a vote of 587 to 507. He says his focus now is to further the party’s objectives in his new position.

In his race for the chairmanship, Clendenin received the endorsements of both the Florida Democratic Black Caucus and the Democratic Hispanic Caucus.

The newly-installed vice chair remembers when Anita Bryant, a former Miss America contestant who was serving as national spokesperson for Florida’s citrus industry at the time, led a successful 1977 campaign to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Miami-Dade County. With her vocal opposition, voters repealed the law 69 to 31 percent.

Clendenin said the city, like much of America at the time, wasn’t a place where gays and lesbians could openly reveal their sexual orientation. “It was not a warm and welcoming place,” he recalls, adding that he and others in the gay community felt isolated.

But Bryant’s anti-gay crusade made things even worse.

“She was a household figure. She was someone whom everyone connected to: mom and America and apple pie. And when she took this stand, it validated the hatred [for gays and lesbians] around the state. It provided fuel to those flickering flames.”

Times may have changed, but as William Faulkner wrote, the past isn’t the past, and Clendenin says another Anita Bryant is always just around the corner.

He notes one of the most recent was Rhonda Storms, a former Republican state senator who lost her campaign for Hillsboro County Property Appraiser. “She would have been a force our community had to battle for years. She was just a woman filled with hate,” said Clendenin.

In 2005, Storms led her fellow Hillsboro County commissioners to pass an ordinance that prohibited the county from promoting or recognizing LGBT pride events. “These people still exist in every community across our state. [Anita Bryant] could happen tomorrow. Our voices [have to be] heard louder than [their voices].”

Clendenin is proud of the progress made so far in the Sunshine State, and he’s optimistic about the future. “I can see an openly gay governor of Florida [being elected one day.] There’s been a generational shift. The world has changed and equality is now accepted by the majority of the population as the right path.”

But while Clendenin says that acceptance of gays and lesbians has moved beyond just “Will & Grace” and into wider pop culture, not enough people are ready yet.

He sees the ultimate LGBT rights issue, the legalization of same-sex marriage, being approved by the courts before it’s approved by a majority of voters. In 2008, 61 percent of Florida voters approved of a Constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.

“We actually have to rely on the courts to strike it down. The Constitution should be never be used to take rights away,” Clendenin argues.

He also partly blames the leadership in the Florida Democratic Party for not doing enough to oppose the amendment, something he attributes to their fear that supporting LGBT rights too strongly could have cause them to lose voters on other issues.

“So many people who should have been our allies [but] the Florida Democratic Party was silent. It was a wake up call to me [and] one of the motivating factors [of why I decided to run for chair.] You have to stand for something.”