Rep. Crist meets with local LGBTQ leaders as equality bill heads to U.S. Senate

Although a bill that would expand housing and employment protections for gay and transgender people has passed the House, it’s unlikely it will make it through the Senate

It wasn’t long after Chris Almvig first came out as a lesbian that her professional life began to crumble.

It was 1972 in Kansas and a young Almvig had not only been booted from her social services job, but she said her former boss blacklisted her with every other area employer in her field.

One of Almvig’s darkest moments sprouted a career as a social worker and LGBTQ advocate. Almvig has since retired to St. Petersburg. But the 72-year-old hasn’t stopped fighting.

She was one of about a dozen community leaders, including health care workers and local pastors, who gathered inside Rep. Charlie Crist’s downtown office on Tuesday. They spoke openly about equality in the workplace, housing and beyond, especially among gay seniors.

“I’m so proud of being a citizen of St. Petersburg, which has this wonderful welcoming attitude to all,” Crist said following the meeting. “We just need to make it spread.”

Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith said the morning meeting was to thank Crist for his support of two federal bills.

One would provide equal protection under the Equality Act, making it illegal to end someone’s employment or kick them out of their housing because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The second calls to amend the Older Americans Act, which helps pay for programs to keep seniors healthy and independent, to be inclusive of elderly LGBTQ people’s needs.

Almvig didn’t have any legal backing in 1972. So she started her career over in New York City. She became a founder of SAGE, an organization that advocates for elders in the LGBTQ community.

“We find older people today who actually go back into the closet,” Almvig said.

Without federal protections, Almvig said some gay seniors fear they will be denied access to a senior living facility, like two women who filed a federal lawsuit in Missouri claiming discrimination after their application to a senior living facility was denied. A judge dismissed their case.

“It’s really a scary time for our transgender elders,” said Cole Foust, who manages Metro Inclusive Health’s LBGTQ+ division.

Foust, who is transgender, has seen clients of his clinic denied access to housing or shelters because of their gender expression because that access isn’t protected under federal law.

Florida doesn’t have a statewide LGBTQ anti-discrimination law. Some municipalities have anti-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ residents, but they cover just 60 percent of the state, according to Equality Florida, a civil rights organization for LGBTQ people.

Smith wanted the meeting’s guests to provide real-life examples to support why advocates don’t want to see legislation “watered down,” as lawmakers attempt to balance religious freedom and civil rights. That’s why area faith leaders attended the St. Pete discussion.

“It’s so important for the LGBTQ community to not have to worry about housing and employment discrimination,” said the Rev. Andy Oliver with Allendale United Methodist. “They face enough discrimination at the Thanksgiving table.”

Smith believes if a Florida bill that calls for adding statewide LGBTQ protections made it to the floor next session, it would win the votes needed to pass. The federal bills, however, are expected to die in the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Republicans who mostly do not agree with expanding LGBTQ protections.

Crist told the group it’s not time to curl up in frustration, but time to act.

“Exercise your right to vote,” Crist told the group. “It’s such a special privilege.”

This article originally appeared in Tampa Bay Times on May 28, 2019.