Conservatives Unify To Support LGBT Protections In Orlando

Photo by Frank Torres. Pictured: Matt Morgan, Jennifer Thompson, Tony Lima, Rene Plasencia, Pete Clarke, Betsy VandeLay, Mike Miller, Patrick Slevin.

SAVE Florida, an advocacy group hosted a mixer with Republican politicians and influencers from Central Florida this past Wednesday at Reyes Mezcaleria in Downtown Orlando.

By Sean David Hartman

Less than five years ago, it was still quite popular to hear even the more moderate Republicans rail against same-sex marriage. But that’s been changing, thanks in part to Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality, an organization formed from one of the earliest LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, SAVE Florida.

The advocacy group hosted a mixer with Republican politicians and influencers from Central Florida this past Wednesday at Reyes Mezcaleria in Downtown Orlando.

“More and more, conservatives have gained the courage to break out the paradigms of the old politics in order to do the right thing,” said Patrick Slevin, who leads the Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality efforts. Slevin is also a well-known GOP consultant.

“Now we are in a position where we don’t have to have courage, we can just do the right thing as center-right conservatives.”

Attending the event were Republicans from all levels of the spectrum, from the moderate to far-right. The Pro-West men’s fraternal organization known as The Proud Boys sent several representatives to show their support. The group has been constantly criticized by liberals, constantly associated with the Alt-Right, a charge which they have consistently denied.

Conservatives for the Right Side of Equality is a division of SAVE Florida, a pro-LGBTQ+ advocacy group formed in the ‘90s. The organization worked to legalize same-sex marriage in the State of Florida, as well as pushing for Human Rights Ordinances, legislation at the municipal level prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The main issue of the evening was the implementation of Employment Non-Discrimination Acts both at the state and local level.

“It’s not only the right thing to do, but it will help us retain the best talent. It will help us continue to be competitive and draw some of those corporate leaders in, so that we continue to make our economy as healthy as possible,” explained Tony Lima, President of SAVE Florida.

This is an issue usually associated with the Democrats, with Orlando Democratic State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith being a notable local proponent. However, many may not realize that GOP State Representative Rene Plasencia has been fighting for this very issue in the legislature longer than Representative Smith, and before fighting for such an issue was acceptable for Republicans.

During his first term, Representative Plasencia cosponsored legislation supported by Key Largo Republican State Representative Holly Merrill Raschein, which would have prohibited businesses from discriminating from LGBTQ+ Floridians.

“That’s the first bill I ever cosponsored,” Representative Plasencia told the crowd. “I see it as all of us having the right to live freely how we choose to live.”

Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke talked about the reaction he received early on when he supported the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, discussing how a single tweet ignited a hailstorm of controversy from other conservatives.

“All men and women are created equal. We all have inalienable rights…that means everybody,” said Commissioner Clarke.

“Future actions can be predicated by past behaviors,” said Commissioner Clarke, who is currently running for Orange County Mayor, making it clear that he would continue to support the LGBT community if he were lucky enough to serve as Mayor.

His most prominent Republican opponent, Winter Park businessman Rob Panepinto also spoke at the event and discussed his personal relationships with the LGBTQ+ community. Panepinto discussed having a gay sibling and multiple LGBTQ+ campaign staffers, including GOP consultant Brooke Renney, who serves as Panepinto’s campaign manager.

Also featured was Orange County Commissioner Besty VanderLey, who spoke about how the “core principles” of the Republican Party led her to stand with the LGBTQ+ equality, railing against specific ideology in favor of broad values such as fiscal responsibility and home rule.

Longwood Commissioner Matt Morgan, a former WWE world champion wrestler discussed his early experiences with the LGBTQ+ community.

“These rights should have been accepted years and years and years ago,” said Commissioner Morgan. He explained how bigoted business owners could be losing out on skilled workers due to their hatred.

“If you continue to condemn and to judge, you are only screwing yourselves over at the end of the day.”

Longwood Mayor Ben Paris, who serves with Commissioner Morgan echoed Morgan’s sentiments. “The next wave of Millennial voters are all about equality, they’re all about freedom, they’re all about rights,” proclaimed Paris.

“And they are more concerned about small government, low taxes and their future…and their Facebook likes, possibly too.”

Julio Fuentas, President of the Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce shared his experiences with business leaders and how he worked with them to adopt protections for LGBT employees.

“One of the few reasons of being a non-politician running for office is I like to do what’s right,” Fuentas said.

Jacob Engels, who publishes this newspaper, closed out the mixer. Engels is openly gay and known for stirring the pot. He spoke openly about unity and civility, even offering an olive branch to a frequent sparring partner, Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson.

Her aide Susan Makowski, who is running to replace her on the Orange County Commission in the August elections, joined Thompson, who is termed out. Congressional candidate Mike Miller and Soil & Water candidates Derek Ryan and Sean McQuade were also spotted.

Engels summed up why LGBTQ+ should very much be accepted by the Republican Party, despite being regularly associated with liberalism and progressive politics.

“Who you love and what you do in your personal life is your business,” Engels said. “As a conservative, you should not be involved in policing the bedrooms of other people.”


Sean David Hartman is a reporter for the Central Florida Post, covering both politics and entertainment issues. He is a political operative who describes himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian”. Hartman is autistic and bipolar and supports the neurodiversity movement and protecting the constitutional rights of those with mental health conditions.