United We Stand
Campaign highlights straight allies of LGBT equality
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic gold medalist
and civil rights attorney, came out.
So did Haskell Company CEO Steve Halverson and Florida Blue CEO Patrick Geraghty. And Rachel Vitti, wife of Duval County Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, came out just a few weeks ago.
No, they haven't re-evaluated their sexual identities. Each has come out as a straight ally for LGBT equality as part of an awareness campaign created by Chevara Orrin, Dan Bagan and Laura Riggs.
The idea is to change minds by introducing people who might share common ground with others in the community. The ads appear on the group's website and social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest. The organizers have plans to launch billboards and print versions.
The campaign also has a more pointed purpose: passing an amendment to Jacksonville's Human Rights Ordinance (HRO) that would add protection for sexual orientation and gender identity in addition to banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, age or disability.
In August 2012, the Jacksonville City Council rejected 10-9 a bill that would have protected gays and lesbians. After that failed, the council voted 17-2 against the original bill, which included protection for gender identity and gender expression classes.
That's around the time Orrin and her husband moved to Jacksonville from North Carolina where she had been heavily involved in LGBT rights. In 2008, she co-founded the first Gay-Straight Student Alliance at Winston-Salem State University. Seven months later, the board of trustees at that historically black university unanimously passed a non-discrimination policy inclusive of sexual orientation. She also helped organize a march there for the We Do Campaign in which LGBT couples request marriage licenses in their hometowns across the South to call for full equality under federal law as part of the Campaign for Southern Equality.
When she saw the Jacksonville City Council reject the HRO amendment, she wondered, "Where have we moved again?"
But she also wondered, "How might I be of service?"
Orrin was born into a family of those who served their communities. Her father, James L. Bevel, was a charismatic Baptist preacher who advised Martin Luther King Jr. and spurred the 1963 "children's crusade" in Birmingham, Ala., that helped rally much of the American public to the side of the civil rights movement. He died in 2008. Her mother, Susanne, is a white, Jewish, civil and human rights, social justice and women's liberation activist.
As a daughter of a mixed-race couple, Orrin said she has deep connections to issues of equality — civil rights, women's rights and LGBT rights. She quickly became involved with the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality as an extension of her previous work for the Human Rights Campaign. She also worked with JAX2025, the Museum of Science & History's "Race: Are We So Different?" exhibition and TEDxJacksonville.
We Are Straight Allies puts Orrin's beliefs directly to work in an "engagement campaign." Organizers are meeting with elected officials such as Sen. Bill Nelson and City Council President Bill Gulliford, inviting people to sign pledges, and supporting grassroots movements to pass other human rights bills such as one in Atlantic Beach.
She knows it's a tough sell in this conservative enclave. But she said change can happen when people get to know each other on a more personal level. Orrin, who works in development and alumni affairs at Edward Waters College, enlisted people from faith and minority communities to appear in the ads because they might help change minds.
Many of the people featured came to the campaign somewhat serendipitously. Halverson spoke in favor of the HRO amendment at the OneJax Humanitarian Awards Dinner this year. Orrin saw 7-year-old Johanna Cordova, whose parents are raising her to be a straight ally, featured in the Jacksonville Coming Out Monologues. Geraghty volunteered. Hogshead-Makar messaged the group on Facebook asking how she could help. Orrin met one of her Springfield neighbors, retired Army officer Ronald Breaker, who agreed to participate. She found Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky of the Jacksonville Jewish Center at a Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN) breakfast. She befriended Vitti, the mother of biracial children, and asked her to take part. John Delaney, president of the University of North Florida and a former Republican mayor, will be featured in a future ad.
Delaney helped gather support for the HRO amendment from the Jax Chamber and other business leaders. They all knew that the city's lack of these protections hurt economic development and the ability to attract major companies to Jacksonville.
"Even though it failed, people know each other a little better," Orrin said. "People went before Council and shared their stories — no matter where they stood. Having that dialogue is always useful."
And one failure doesn't end the fight, Orrin said. The civil rights movement faced many barriers, but they kept marching and strategizing until they found success.
"I'm not at all doubtful that it will pass in Jacksonville," she said.
She learned that resilience from her own challenging journey. As one of Bevel's 16 children by 10 mothers, Orrin realized he sexually molested her and several sisters. Bevel was convicted of one count of molesting Orrin's sister when she was 15 years old and sentenced to 15 years in 2008. He died later that year.
"A big part of what motivates and moves me are all my lived experiences," she said.
As someone who's broken barriers her entire life, Orrin said there's no magic bullet when it comes to changing minds about equality — of any kind. Statistics won't do it, and though she supports an HRO amendment, she said no bill will do it.
What will work? Learning more about each other and finding the common ground.
"We are all inextricably bound to each other," she said. "I can't separate my freedom from the lack of freedom that other people have in this community."