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Beyond Park East: Northwest Florida's LGBT Community

Credit WUWF Public Media

Today we kick off “Beyond Park East,” a five-part series on northwest Florida’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.

On Memorial Day weekend, the LGBT community is out in force at Pensacola Beach’s Park East, for four days of sun, fun, and revelry. But when the beach chairs, towels and coolers are packed up, what happens the other 361 days of the year?

“The fact of the matter is, there’s an LGBT community in Pensacola 365 days a year,” said Louis Cooper, President of Gay Grassroots of Northwest Florida.

“There are LGBT business owners, LGBT lawyers, students, there are religious organizations that serve the LGBT community who are looking for that,” Cooper said. “We have a very vibrant and diverse LGBT community; really as diverse as the community as a whole.”

Whites, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asians help make up LGBT communities nationwide, including Pensacola. Cooper says in many instances, people don’t think of that mix. Instead, they rely on long-standing, yet inaccurate, stereotypes.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Louis Cooper, President of Gay Grassroots of Northwest Florida.

“Highly educated, affluent, maybe tree-huggers and granola-eaters,” said Cooper. “And, we have those. But, there are LGBTs of every political persuasion, every religious persuasion, and every ethnic, and socio-economic group. And Pensacola has a fairly large LGBT community, I would say.”

Pensacola,and northwest Florida’s LGBT community, are in what many call the “reddest” part of the state and perhaps one of the most conservative regions in the nation. But Cooper says there are exceptions. 

“I would say that, the closer you get to downtown Pensacola, the more progressive it is; the more open LGBT people can be,” said Cooper. “The city of Pensacola itself is fairly LGBT-friendly.”

Cooper bases that observation, in part, on the city’s passage of a domestic partnership ordinance in 2014, making Pensacola the first Florida city west of Tallahassee to offer a DPR for both gay and straight couples.

City Councilman Larry B. Johnson sponsored the measure.

“We took a look at the city of Orlando’s ordinance, and we modeled ours after theirs,” Johnson said. “We tried to make this as easy on everyone as we could, and not reinvent the wheel.”

That and all other DPRs for gay couples were superseded when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 – drawing praise from President Obama.

“Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle; that we are all created equal,” said the President. “The project of each generation is to bridge the meaning of those founding words, with the realities of changing times.”

“What an absolute basic right, for two people who are loving adults, who want to be in a committed relationship with each other, and have all of the legal responsibilities and benefits that that includes,” said Gay Grassroots’ Louis Cooper.

LGBT people have an easier time of it today, contends Cooper, in large part because of comedian Ellen DeGeneres. She, and her character, came out in an episode of her ABC sitcom “The Ellen Show” in 1997.

“Ellen being such a public person, having a very effervescent persona, I think that really got pop culture to thinking about and acknowledging that gay people exist,” said Cooper.

In our next installment, we look at the LGBT community’s contribution to the defense of our country.