Despite modest gains, LGBTQ community still looking for acceptance, understanding

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June is PRIDE month and while there’s still plenty of work to be done for the LGBTQ community, this month serves as a celebration of this community and all that it represents.

It’s also an opportunity for those who aren’t part of the LGBTQ movement to educate themselves on the trials and tribulations the community has faced. It’s been fighting for equality throughout all of history. Since this state’s beginning in St. Augustine, members of the LGBTQ community were persecuted for simply being themselves.

Gonzalo Solis De Maras was executed in St. Augustine for being gay in 1566 and this is the first recorded instance of a person being sentenced to death in North America for being gay. Francisco De Paeja wrote about witnessing Timucuan native Americans engaging in gay sexual activities nearly 30 years later in 1595.

Fast forward nearly 300 years to 1868 and Florida passes its first sodomy law, which phrased sodomy as a crime against nature. Clay County was only about 10 years old when this law, which is no longer in effect, went into effect. And while arrests and charges against LGBTQ people likely happened in its earlier days, the county remained relatively small for decades.

It had a population of about 10,000 in the early 1900s, but that population only continued to grow and grow into the more than 220,000 people that call it home today. Clay County Archive historical arrest records reveal that Clay County was not only against gay sex in the 20th Century, but it was against virtually any kind of sex outside traditional marriage.

Multiple arrests were made in 1931 for “fornification,” a term that was seemingly used to describe any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage. Straight couples went to jail for fornification if caught outside of marriage, according to records.

Clay County’s archivist Vishi Garig pointed out that if a man and a woman were arrested for “fornification,” it likely meant they had sex outside of marriage. If just one man was arrested for “fornification,” for example, Garig said it was likely due to gay sex. The archive’s arrest records showed an arrest of three people for having a sexual relationship together in 1934.

One man arrested for gay sex was arrested in 1937, he but escaped from the Clay County’s Old Jail in the Historic Triangle soon after being placed there. The records indicate that not only was the county against gay sex, and subsequently, gay marriage considering the state only just legalized it in 2015, but it was against anything that didn’t fit the traditional marriage narrative of a man not having sex outside of wedlock.

This lines up with the county’s conservative values of the 20th Century and other arrests seemingly push that narrative even further. Everyone knows about the prohibition and how it made alcohol illegal starting in 1920. This didn’t affect Clay County, though, because it had already made alcohol illegal more than 15 years before the prohibition in 1904, according to Garig.

Archive arrest records indicate that people were still getting arrested for possessing whiskey in 1941, which is eight years after the prohibition ended. The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee began to attempt to root out LGBTQ community members out of public education in schools such as the University of Florida and Florida State University in 1961.

Think about that – you likely know someone born in the 1960s. The 1960s weren’t that long ago. Gay marriage was still illegal back then and official government committees were so against it that committees were set up to kick gays from public universities. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declassified being gay as a mental disorder. That’s less than 50 years ago.

That could be considered a step forward in the fight for LGBTQ rights but after that one step forward, Florida took another step backwards by banning gay couples from adopting children in 1977. Florida wouldn’t deem this ban unconstitutional until 2010 and it was the last state to make it OK for gay couples to adopt children.

It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that the ball towards equality for the LGBTQ community really started gaining traction. But mind you, that community still is being persecuted in many ways today. The first PRIDE parade was held in Jacksonville in 1984. Disney World began to hold Gay Days in 1981, the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN) would be created in 1994 and five years later in 1999, the Jacksonville Jaguars would become the first and only NFL team at that time to support LGBTQ youth in the nation after giving a grant to JASMYN.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that schools in Northeast Florida made discriminating against sexual preference illegal and even then, same-sex marriage would remain illegal until 2015.

Same-sex marriage was a big win for the LGBTQ community, but don’t write it off as the final win. There’s still a lot of work to be done to give that community the same equality enjoyed by heterosexual and cisgender people.

Just this year, a page in the 2020-21 Fleming Island High yearbook meant to highlight the school’s LGBTQ community was removed. When the yearbook’s editor learned of this, it was too late to fight for it to be included in the yearbook.

“Whoever’s decision it was, even if it was unintentional, felt homophobic,” yearbook editor Hannah Coulter told Clay Today in April. “Stuff like this usually doesn’t bother me. Even though I’m a relatively bland-appearing bisexual, I still get called slurs often. It’s water off my back. When it’s something that affects my fellow students, though? I’m like a moth on a flame.”

A compromise was eventually made later that month to include an add-on with the yearbook that sees the LGBTQ pages return as they were originally intended. While it’s still unknown if this was intentional or not – the school district says it values the diversity of all students – it’s still an example of the challenges LGBTQ people face today in Clay County – let alone the state, country and world.

These moments and events in history are important to know and important to remember. June’s PRIDE month celebration is about the successes the LGBTQ community has made throughout history and it’s important to recognize the trials and tribulations this community has faced to understand why celebrating Pride is important and necessary.

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