PENSACOLA, Fla. — In conservative Pensacola, Sara Latshaw feared her months-long campaign to get the city council to recognize domestic partnerships was about to fail.
Looking at 17 scheduled speakers during a public discussion just before the December 2013 vote, she knew 10 were supporters but didn’t know the others.
“I assumed the other seven were going to speak against it and thought maybe we were sunk,” said Latshaw, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Northwest Florida Office and organizer of the domestic registry campaign in this Republican stronghold with a large active and retired military presence.
To Latshaw’s surprise, all 17 speakers supported the registry and the measure passed 8-1. Casting the lone vote against, council President Jewel Cannada-Wynn said during the meeting that same-sex marriage “undermines the very fiber of our culture, that is marriage and the family unit.”
Latshaw and other Florida gay rights activists say the support for the measure was just one example of how rapidly attitudes toward the gay and lesbian community have softened in the state’s most-conservative region – changes that bode well for a statewide push for gay marriage.
The state Supreme Court is likely to consider challenges to the state ban in the next year if a federal appeals court doesn’t rule first. Recent federal court decisions have upheld same-sex marriage laws in numerous states, and national polls show increasing support for same-sex marriage.
Pensacola seems an unlikely hotbed for such changes in attitudes.
Known for its sprawling Navy Base and gleaming white-sand beaches, the far-western Panhandle town of 53,000 is also known nationally for a string of abortion clinic bombings and shootings in the 1980s and early 1990s, the fundamentalist Pensacola Christian College and the acclaimed 2006 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Jesus Camp,” which chronicles the experiences of children at a charismatic Christian summer camp. In 1994, a Pensacola judge granted custody of a child to a convicted murderer rather than to the child’s lesbian mother, declaring that the child should live in a “non-lesbian world.”
Ted Traylor, pastor of the 9,000-member Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, said his congregation considers gay marriage a violation of natural law, state law and Biblical law.
“I have noticed a swing in attitudes in the area though,” he said.
Today, Pensacola is the only Florida city west of Tallahassee to approve a domestic registry. It gives gay and lesbian couples specific rights within the city’s boundaries including hospital visitation, health care decisions and funeral and burial decisions for their partners.
“The Panhandle is the Deep South and the Deep South is changing,” said Nadine Smith, president of Equality Florida.
On Tuesday, federal judges in Arkansas and Mississippi overturned those states’ bans on gay marriage, declaring them unconstitutional. As with several other states, those rulings are on hold pending appeal and likely will be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.