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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Open lesbian attorney runs for Florida legislature
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-06-30

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Running in the Aug. 30 primary election for the Democratic stronghold of District 92 ( Broward County ) in Florida's House of Representatives, Paulette V. Armstead describes herself as having "diverse experience for diverse challenges."

As an openly LGBT candidate, should she prevail against her four challengers for the seat vacated by the popular Gwyndolen "Gwyn" Clarke-Reed, Armstead will be swimming against the tide in a state that saw the rise of Anita Bryant's 1977 campaign against gay rights and has rarely looked back. There is no Republican listed on the ballot for this November.

Despite support for the LGBT community voiced for the benefit of the hordes of television cameras which descended on Orlando in the hours after the Pulse Nightclub massacre, Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have been openly hostile to LGBT issues.

There is currently only one openly gay member in the Florida legislature—Rep. David Richardson ( D-113 ).

He and fellow Democrat Joe Saunders were elected in 2012 as the first openly gay men to serve at the State Capitol in Tallahassee. Saunders is now the Southern Reginal Field Director for the Human Rights Campaign.

Florida did not relinquish its ban on gay adoptions until 2010. It was the last state to do so.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations such as Equality Florida, religious "freedom" legislation similar to that in North Carolina was not brought to the House floor in 2016. However it and a swathe of anti-LGBT bills remain an ominous threat for the 2017 session.

A proposed bill banning anti-LGBT discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment ( the Florida Competitive Workforce Act ) failed following arguments by opponents who, according to Equality Florida "appealed to irrational fears and invoked the same bathroom arguments fueling discrimination in North Carolina and dehumanizing transgender people in particular."

Bondi refused to offer an opinion on federal guidelines determining access to restrooms by transgender public school students. In April, 2016 Florida's Department of Children and Families ( DCF ) struck the language sexual orientation and gender expression from its anti-bullying guidelines.

But swimming against the tide is something Armstead has had enough practice to ensure she will not drown.

She was the third to file in her field of five and she did so out of a determination to give the marginalized a voice which is consistently muted in a Republican-controlled legislature. If Armstead has her way, that voice will be enough of an exclamation to throw a wrench in the works of indifference.

"When it comes to the LGBT community, the Republicans are not fighting for inclusion," she told Windy City Times. "They are legalizing discrimination. Sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes under federal law and Scott is pushing against that. You just can't discriminate against a block of citizens. Employers here like AT&T and Disney want the anti-discrimination bill passed but Scott and his Republican cronies are blocking that."

"The Republican agenda has taken precedent," she added. "When it comes to the economy, Scott says he wants to create jobs and so he has given large corporations huge tax breaks and eliminated a lot of industry regulations. That is not how you are going to create jobs. Employers are looking for a skilled labor force. Our emphasis should be on preparing workers with skills in technology, engineering, math and science. To grow our workforce, we must have affordable housing, good schools and cultural activities."

Armstead is equally as impassioned about women's rights.

"Florida is one of the remaining states that has not ratified the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]," she said. "That's uncalled for. Scott launched an investigation into Planned Parenthood. It came back showing that there were no irregularities but, in this last legislative session, he signed a bill to defund an organization that provides reproductive healthcare for working-class women, mammogram screenings, gynecological exams, HIV and STD testing for females and males."

The list of battles which lie ahead are as long as they are formidable but, if she wins at the polls, Armstead will be armed with a resume that is bursting with multifaceted public service and a life history that forged a fighter through necessity.

She was born prematurely leading to a serious heart condition which doctors didn't think she would survive beyond the age of 16. She credits a full recovery at 13 to her faith in God. When she was three years old, Armstead's parents divorced leaving her mother to raise five children alone.

"When we reached our teen years," Armstead wrote in an essay about her life, "my brothers, sisters and I spent the summer months working in the hot, humid fields picking tomatoes and in the orange groves picking oranges and grapefruits. Our meager salaries helped pay the household expenses."

It was this work ethic that earned Armstead four college degrees and high level positons in multiple fields.

Armstead has been an attorney for two decades ( four of them spent as an assistant attorney at the Florida Department of Natural Resources ). She also served as a police officer, detective and deputy chief of legal affairs for the St. Petersburg, Florida, Police Department.

She nurtured aspiring minds as an assistant professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York and inspired religious faith as a congregational pastor.

All of this while pushing against the surge of inherent and constant discrimination.

"So often as a Black person, as a female and as a lesbian, I would hear statements that were negative," she said. "Growing up I went to a segregated school in disrepair that did not have adequate text books. They were hand-me-downs from those used in the white schools. It did not make sense to me. I grew up with a sense of 'I am just as good, just as equal and just as loved as anybody else.' I don't like it when anybody is treated differently because of a physical quality like race or gender."

"When I look back at all the jobs I have held, I have always had a care and compassion to protect the people and the environment," she added. "When I see people working out in the hot sun now, my heart goes out to them because I know what they are going through."

Armstead noted that it makes her angry to see the Florida agriculture industry take advantage of them.

"Many of them don't have insurance," she said. "They don't have federal or state law protections when it comes to wages or benefits. As I got older, my social justice ministry was the strong voice who advocated for marginalized people. In my law practice I was only affecting a couple of hundred people. As a legislator I am expanding my desire and elevating my passion to be that voice. In order to push back and make a difference, I need to be a part of the decision-making body."

Armstead feels the same frustration from voters in Broward County that has been seen not only nationally but, as demonstrated by the result of Britain's June 24 referendum to exit the European Union, as part of a global shift against people's perceptions of establishment politics.

"When I talk to the voters many feel like they want to throw in the towel," she said. "But my response is to continue to fight. I'm a Black female. I've been fighting all my life. Giving up is not an option because the tide can change. We have same-sex marriage now. Can you imagine if we had just given up? We are in it for the long haul. If we don't fight for LGBTQ rights and gender issues, no one else will. We need to be on the forefront."

Armstead has been on a constant journey of educational and spiritual growth. But the lessons she has already been taught—whether during her childhood, in lecture halls or throughout her career—have fashioned a philosophy that seems to set her apart from the cynicism of politics.

"I've learned a lot through my experiences," she said. "My family did what we had to do in order to survive but there was always a sense of unity; a moral obligation that if we stuck together, we could make it. In my campaign, I have really tried to connect with the communities that Gwyn represented but it's not about me. It's about what I can do to raise the quality of life for everybody in Florida."

For more information about Paulette Armstead, visit www.ArmsteadforFLHouse.com .

Contributions to her campaign can be made at www.ArmsteadforFLHouse.com/contribute .


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