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Meet Nadine Smith

Nadine Smith is the co-founder and CEO of Equality Florida, the state's largest organization dedicated to ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities. Her activism and organizing run deep. After attending the United States Air Force Academy, Nadine withdrew from military service with the passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that prevented officers from discussing their sexual identities. Nadine was one of four national co-chairs of the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, and was part of an historic Oval Office meeting with then-President Bill Clinton — the first between a sitting president and LGBTQ community leaders.
Meet Nadine Smith

by Katherine Durgin-Bruce

October 11, 2018

Can you tell me about your background and what you feel is most important in your life story?

I came from generations of activists — people who work to make things better. My grandparents were part of the first integrated farm cooperative in the country in the Mississippi delta. My grandfather said he moved his family out of the South when he refused to teach his son, my father, not to look white people in the eyes.

Eventually we returned to the South. My father moved us to Florida. He told me to be respectful to my teachers — you know, call them by their last names — but that I didn’t need to call anyone ma’am or sir. In the South it was quite a task to avoid using those phrases. It got me in a lot of trouble, but it also taught me that you stand up to things that matter. Things were so frayed in the South between black people and white people that my father didn’t want me to grow up feeling subservient, but he also didn’t want me to grow up being disrespectful to people that I ought to respect.


What kind of work do you do today?

I am the cofounder of an organization [Equality Florida] that makes the world a safer place for everyone by protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination and violence.


I know you’re also active in a number of other issues, including gun control movements.

Yeah, I grew up in a military family, and I went to the United States Air Force Academy after high school. And I know that the NRA doesn’t speak for most gun owners — not even a fraction of gun owners. Most people, including actual responsible gun owners, want to see common-sense restrictions on where and when and what kind of weapons people have available.

But the NRA has held a stranglehold on legislators. There are the ones they own and the ones they intimidate. Between those two camps national policy has taken a backseat, and there’s a body count attached to that failure in our public policy. So it’s a very personal issue to me, and I am proud to stand with the students and the parents and just everyday people who are finally saying it’s enough.

It’s clear that the LGBTQ community is disproportionately impacted by gun violence, not just the horror that unfolded at Pulse [nightclub on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, in which a shooter killed 49 people], but in the hate crimes that escalate to murder. All of those are factors that disproportionately impact our community and have required us to speak up and speak out.


For people hoping to improve the world, what other issues do you feel are most important to pay attention to right now?

Well the issues are all connected, but I mean right now, you’ve got to vote. There are some dangerous ideas [circulating]. It’s the fusion of corruption and ideologies that are hostile to black and brown people that have come together in America right now. It’s a dangerous ideological imperative that drives [some individuals in positions of power] — it’s keep as many brown people out, and incarcerate as many brown people as possible. That’s their guiding philosophy. And at a time when racial diversity just continues to grow in our country, it’s a very dangerous atmosphere that they’re creating.

We’ve got to address that fundamental feature of American history and our future. We’re going to have to resolve it in a way that allows us all to live our dreams. So I would say that there’s no distinction between racial justice in America and true democracy in America. I put those two together.

“It got me in a lot of trouble, but it also taught me that you stand up to things that matter.”

The next piece I would say is the climate. We are imperiling the planet with a culture of nonstop consumption coupled with corporate irresponsibility. We have too many companies that are reaping the benefit of what they sell and not paying for the cost of what they sell. They’re socialists when it comes to who should bear the risk and the environmental impact of what they do, but capitalist when it comes time to reap the profits. But you can’t have it both ways.

And then I think the rise of nationalism, a kind of tribal attitude that is being driven worldwide, shows up in lots of ways. It shows up as homophobia and antisemitism. It shows up as religious bigotry. It shows up as hate violence. And we have an obligation to speak up, especially when we are not the direct target.


Are there organizations or individuals that you want to celebrate that have helped you along the way or are doing great things now?

Oh, [it’s] an endless list. Phil Wilson, one of my first mentors, is doing incredible work around AIDS and HIV.

Bree Newsome, who climbed the flagpole and took down a confederate flag [in front of the South Carolina Capitol building]. Really it wasn’t just the action she took —it’s the sort of voice that she has brought, speaking plainly about racism and anti-blackness in America, that’s been an inspiration to me.

The Parkland [Florida] students [who survived the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which 17 people were killed] have broken through the haze in the wake of a massacre to galvanize the country’s attention, and to call out the NRA as the dangerous frauds that they are.

I’d shout those three out. 


If you could create a job for yourself that you think could make the biggest difference in the world, what would it be?

You know I have had cause to contemplate different jobs at different times in my career, and I always ask myself, what is the highest and best use of my time and talent at this particular moment? And right now, as a Floridian, as somebody who cares deeply about this state — and I see it as a microcosm of the country — I think the work we do here becomes a model for what is possible elsewhere, in the South particularly. So this to me is the right place and the right time for me to do what I do.

[Otherwise I might be] a filmmaker. I like films, I like the medium. I think it impacts people in deep and profound ways. I have no idea what kind of movies I would make, but they probably wouldn’t be documentary or ones that tell you that “I’m about to deliver a message to you.” They’d probably focus more on something like women’s basketball. You know, like a road movie with a women’s basketball team.


I would go to that movie— that would be great!

Yeah exactly! We’ve been needing that movie for a long time. 


Are there things you think the design community could do around the issues we’ve been discussing to educate others?

I think now more than ever it’s the moment where people have to take a stand. You have to let people know where you stand. A friend of mine always wears his safety pin. I keep a safety pin on me when I travel, and so does he, and it provokes conversation. People are like, “What does that mean?” And you get to tell them that this is about letting people know that, “I’m part of the resistance to this idea that is being driven by [President Donald Trump’s] administration that slanders immigrants, that demeans women, that rolls back progress for the LGBTQ community. I stand in opposition to that.” And as a consequence of those quick conversations, programs have been built. [Leaders at] organizations have said, “Hey, I want to do that too, and we want to make sure we’re standing visibly against those things.” 

“We’re in a moment where silence is complicity.”

We’re in a moment where silence is complicity. Every opportunity we have to push back — to stand next to those who are being attacked and say, “We won’t be quiet in the face of this” — is really important. So I hope that graphic designers will use imagery and the power of that medium to help people.

When you’re walking through the airport, you don’t get the chance to talk to thirty people, but thirty people can see what’s on your shirt. I’m wearing my Women’s March on Washington T-shirt right now, and I wear it a lot: one, because it’s comfortable, but two, because from a distance people see me and it provokes conversations — a thumbs-up or a “you’re not alone.” It’s important right now for us to send those messages to each other. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more information about how you can support the LGBTQ community, visit our resource page.


Illustrations by Benjamin Tuttle / Ultravirgo

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