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Defying Florida’s Anti-gay Policy Push, Lake Worth Beach Stands as Sanctuary City

Amid more proposed legislation targeting LGBTQ+ individuals, Lake Worth Beach offers a safe space for an embattled community. Commissioners voted in September to make it a sanctuary city, the first in Florida to do so.

Photo by Nathalie Vega

By Nathalie Vega | MediaLab@FAU

Dec 14, 2023

LAKE WORTH BEACH, Fla. – The LGBTQ+ community in Florida has been through many challenges in recent years, from horrific violence to restrictions on class discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity. However, one Florida city has now taken a stand to support the community.

The city of Lake Worth Beach is now a LGBTQ+ sanctuary city after commissioners unanimously voted in favor of the declaration on Sept. 5, and many residents couldn’t be happier. The city’s new status stands in sharp relief with the overall political climate in Florida and new attempts to further restrict expressions of gender and sexuality.  

Julie Seaver, the chief executive officer of the Compass LGBTQ Community Center, an organization that provides support to people in the LGBTQ+ community and people impacted by HIV and AIDS, said that she appreciates the city is taking action following the passage of anti-gay legislation in Tallahassee.

Seaver says that the organization’s youth program is growing, in large part due to recent anti-LGBTQ legislation. She explained that ever since the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was passed in 2022, she knew it would go beyond its initial goal of barring conversation about sexuality and gender for kindergarten through third grade.

“Truly it feels like all of our rights are being taken away from us one by one,” said Seaver. However, she was thrilled about the recent declaration.

“When the city mirrors our values and our beliefs, you just can’t ask for anything more than that,” she said.

This year has brought many challenges to the LGBTQ+ community after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation targeting the community, including HB 1069, which extends prohibition on classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity to pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and HB 1521, which prohibits individuals from using restrooms and changing facilities designed for the opposite sex and refusing to depart when asked to do so.

The community has faced a particularly difficult challenge in Miami-Dade County. While Palm Beach County Schools will continue recognizing LGBTQ+ History Month in October, following a recent vote by the school board, Miami-Dade County school leaders voted to not mark the month as LGBTQ+ History Month after pressure from politicians and activists who want restrictions on classroom instruction of gender and sexuality.

LGBTQ+ individuals have also faced violent crimes such as the Orlando shooting of 2016 at the Pulse nightclub, where a gunman killed 49 people and wounded over 50. Despite these events, many LGBTQ+ people are unafraid of speaking out about the issues affecting them and are voicing their concerns.

Seaver expressed her admiration for the young adults in the community for knowing who they are at such a young age. She explained that although hate groups have targeted and used control and fear to make individuals “go back in the closet,” the community is unwilling to back down.

Seaver added that she appreciates how this generation is not about the “me,” but about the collective “we.”

“They are loud and proud and queer and they’re not going anywhere,” Seaver said.

Felicia Rivera, a 21-year-old Boynton Beach resident who is bisexual, explained the declaration made her feel safer.

Rivera said the declaration gives her and other LGBTQ+ young adults more freedom to be themselves, and it would provide more people with a space where they can feel comfortable.

“I feel like [the declaration] is a good thing because at least there is an area where [LGBTQ+ young adults] will all be accepted,” she said. “People have been fighting for so long to be accepted like that,” Rivera said.

Lake Worth Beach’s Vice Mayor and Commissioner Christopher McVoy said the resolution is an important statement of position that has given Lake Worth Beach both national and international attention.

“I think that is a useful counterweight to the stream of very negative, very anti-LGBTQ stuff that’s come out both in Florida and, as referred to in the resolution, in other parts of the U.S.,” said McVoy. He also explained that the biggest challenge for young adults in the LGBTQ+ community is suicide. “The numbers – especially in the trans youth community – the numbers are bad,” McVoy said.

According to The Trevor Project’s 2023 US National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People, 41% of young LGBTQ people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

McVoy advised the LGBTQ+ youth to be themselves, to be strong and to seek support.

According to the Florida Attorney General’s Office’s 2021 Hate Crimes in Florida Report, crimes motivated by hatred of a the victim's sexual orientation represented 24.5% of all reported hate crimes.

However, McVoy expressed that the declaration helped to send a message to law enforcement, stating the city’s position and stating that they expect law enforcement to honor it and stay vigilant about anti-LGBTQ activity.

“It helps send a message to them, that they’re aware that this is a priority for us,” he said.

Lake Worth Beach is a city as colorful as the pride flag, with giant, lively art on the walls of many of its buildings and lush, green palm trees lining its streets.

The city is filled with services and attractions that proudly wave rainbow-striped flags in the wind, showing support for the LGBTQ+ demographic. This includes places such as the Mad Hatter Lounge, where pride flags decorate the interior and exterior.

According to Richard Guadi, the manager at the Mad Hatter Lounge, an LGBTQ-friendly bar, this declaration served as a way for Lake Worth Beach to solidify something that already existed. Guadi explained that LGBTQ+ acceptance has grown compared to when older generations were growing up. He said the recent declaration could benefit the LGBTQ+ community, but he believes the city was already going in that direction.

“I think it was really something that just needed to be pushed out there, maybe,” he said.

Guadi advised young members of the LGBTQ+ community to be themselves and to have faith that things will work out.

“If you just put your head down and you work hard and you try to find your way and you just are going to do the right thing to be positive, I think only good things are going to come out of it,” he said.

Richard Guadi, the manager at the Mad Hatter Lounge, an LGBTQ-friendly bar in Lake Worth Beach. (Photo by Nathalie Vega)

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