‘PEOPLE SHOULDN’T JUDGE’
THREE OF FLORIDA’S VOCAL VOICES ON GAY-RIGHTS discuss their journey and their thoughts on same-sex marriage
BY PENNY DICKERSON
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
A new era of gay rights advocacy has swept the nation.
The Jacksonville chapter of Parents for Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) leased billboards in 2012 broadcasting their support: “We love our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children.” The strategic signage alerted traffic along major thoroughfares.
In November 2012, Jacksonville City Council members defeated a human rights ordinance that sought to ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals in regards to employment and looking for housing while an amended version would have added six words: “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression” to the list of classes already protected by the city’s anti-discrimination statute.”
It also was defeated by a 17-2 margin. Liberals and conservatives remain divided.
The responsibility to define gay rights’ parameters belongs to states.
Florida advocates are among the most voluminous in the nation and speak with candor regarding human rights and the religious order.
WHAT IS PROPOSITION 8?
California’s controversial ballot initiative known as Proposition 8 defines marriage only as between a man and a woman.
It is widely understood as a ban on gay marriages.
The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, prevents legally wed same-sex couples from receiving certain benefits by defining marriage as between a man and woman. (Florida has its own version of DOMA that was overwhelmingly passed by the Florida Legislature in 1997.)
In 2008, inspired by California’s Proposition 8, strong support from Florida’s African-American voters led to passage of an amendment to the state constitution, which now bans gay marriage in Florida. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist supported the amendment, as did then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Five years and a presidential re-election later, the legalization of gay marriage is front-and-center at the nation’s highest court.
On March 27, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that prevents legally wed same-sex couples from receiving certain benefits by defining marriage as between a man and woman.
Willetta Smith has been openly gay since age 14. Her father nicknamed her “Mamado” at the age of two because she always mocked her mama.
Decades later, that same loving patriarch brandished a shotgun inside “Club 209,” one of Jacksonville’s historic gay establishments. He came to reclaim his runaway daughter.
“I knew in elementary school I was different,” Smith explained. “I dated guys because it was the right thing to do, but I’ve never slept with one.
There was never love at all.”
When she became a runaway and truant, Smith used a fake ID to frequent gay clubs like the “French Quarters” and “Studs and Drag Queens” became her family.
“A neighborhood drug dealer led my father where I was hanging out,” explained Smith. “He bust in with that shotgun and just embarrassed me,” she joked.
A family meeting followed that critical night; it ended with parental tears.
Smith decisively proclaimed her gay lifestyle and never looked back.
Attending night class and summer school, she earned a diploma from William M. Raines Senior High School and as reciprocity to Daddy, she became a musician.
The self-taught keyboard player completed advanced music theory and engineering courses at Florida State College at Jacksonville and Edward Waters College followed by an impressive recording artist career.
The next three decades parallel a reality television show. Smith was in a seven-year relationship with a woman who birthed twins prior to a prison sentence. Smith became a surrogate mother and managed a strip club for nine years prior to her own conviction, which also landed her in prison. Behind bars she recorded a music CD featuring fellow inmates.
‘God made us’
Smith is now 54 years old and engaged to be married to 26-year-old rap artist/model Alea Janae Davis.
Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage prohibits a legal union, but they are considering other states and remain unapologetic regarding choice. “God is a loving, caring God to me. We love, we don’t hate,” expressed Smith.
“People shouldn’t judge. God made us.”
Bruce Ellison is a strikingly handsome 37-year-old spiritual advisor and author of “I Am the Manifester.” The Orlando native is single and the youngest of six siblings; his parents are divorced. By all accounts, he is apt prey for doting women. But Ellison is gay and believes he was born that way.
“I knew at five years old I was attracted to men,” said Ellison, who prefers to be called Tobi. “My behavior was unacceptable and my oldest cousin said I was the biggest sissy as a child because I rearranged furniture every week. In school everyone called me fag and a punk.”
Ellison endured painful sentiments that he was morally wrong his entire life but insists his perceptions and views do not represent the majority.
A different view
“Proposition 8 is a distraction,” declared Ellison. “I can’t believe in this day and age we are still talking about homosexuality…when the gay community stops making it a big deal, so will the world.”
Ellison has never formally dated a woman, but has slept with two. Further, he offered that he has kissed one person in the last 10 years and has never lived with another man.
“If I listened to religion, I am going to hell. I experience Christ-consciousness. God doesn’t care about your sexuality,” preached Ellison.
“People are not rising to a Christ-conscious level, they want to see (homosexuality) in their eyes. Man has created God in His image. I think that is the issue.”
Jeronica Byrd is a 34-year-old lesbian. She has been openly gay since age 17, but recognized gender preference early.
“I knew when I was five, but didn’t know what it was,” said Byrd. “I only wanted to play with girls but was raised in the church and the South. They considered it wrong, so I thought something was wrong with me.”
Byrd became sexually promiscuous with men. She succumbed to social and religious pressure to marry, but extra marital affairs with women led to a divorce after five years from a husband she claims, “thought she was bisexual.’’
She shared, “We are taught the American Dream is 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, dog, and a husband – not a loving mate.’’
Founded lesbian sorority
Born to a 14-year-old mother in Arkansas, Byrd was raised and educated in Alabama by her great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother; her mother left to join the military.
“We grow up hearing that homosexuality is an abomination, so I’m not into organized religion,” stated Byrd. “It’s a tool of oppression not uplift and enlightenment.”
Byrd abides by a moral code to do right and use common sense – don’t lie, steal, cheat – but it’s not based on being a “Bible-thumping Christian.”
At Stillman College in Alabama, Byrd was blacklisted on campus when she “came out.” She then founded Kappa Xi Omega Sorority, Inc., a community service organization and sisterhood for lesbian women created to articulate and encourage community consciousness.
A national advocate, Byrd believes there are three major lesbian influences: biological (born gay); sociological (assimilate to society and culture) and psychological (individuals damaged by men who feel women are their only option).
Byrd’s influence is biological. She and her partner of nine years look forward to marriage when DOMA is amended to afford everyone equal benefits.