Building LGBTQ+ Communities in Germany and the United States: Past, Present, and Future

Tuesday, November 14 - 19, 2023

Year 1: Orlando/Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Florida

LGBTQ+ individuals and their communities have been organizing to assert their rights for over a century, especially in Germany and the United States—two countries that were early pioneers and that have currently achieved more equality than many other places. But many challenges still persist, especially as a backlash to greater LGBTQ+ rights has been visible in both countries.

A comparative examination of the history, present, and future of LGBTQ+ rights will generate new understandings, leadership skills, and policy lessons for both countries and many others around the world. This AGI project fosters cross-cultural exchange with participants from diverse backgrounds by sharing personal testimonies, successes and failures, and best practices through week-long study tours in the United States and Germany.

Program Synopsis


Office of Multicultural Affairs, City of Orlando

The city of Orlando engages with diverse communities and entities. The city has a vibrant private sector, is home to a number of multicultural community organizations, and boasts an international presence through visitors, foreign embassies, and consulates. The city regularly hosts multicultural events and, in support of its LGBTQ+ community, instituted special protective policies and regulations in 2011. Large corporations like the Walt Disney Company in the region also support the diverse populations of the city, including LGBTQ+ individuals. Many of the companies have Employee Research Groups (ERG) that work to support a diverse workforce.

The Mayor’s office has hosted several meetings and roundtable discussions in response to recently implemented state-wide laws that affect LGBTQ+ communities. The city’s different communities, businesses, churches, and civil society organizations are working together to alleviate the negative impact these policies have had on Orlando’s residents. One prominent example is the Contigo Fund, which offers financial support to organizations that work to heal, educate, and empower LGBTQ+ communities and those who stand against all forms of bigotry in central Florida.

Forty-nine individuals were killed in the tragic Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016. Discussion of how to commemorate this tragedy has been intensive in Orlando. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the city of Orlando and its residents came together to support survivors, friends, and families of the victims, and many organizations were created to support the LGBTQ+ community. However, as is the case with many events where innocent lives are lost, differing opinions have made commemoration of this tragic loss of life difficult to pursue. The OnePULSE Foundation, which also grew out of the tragedy in 2016 and was the main organization to direct the memorialization efforts, started to implode two weeks prior to the AGI project trip. Various factors led to the foundation’s troubles, but the efforts to commemorate the victims and support those affected by the tragedy continue. The city of Orlando recently purchased the site of the nightclub and is now leading d efforts to construct a permanent memorial. The inclusion of the voices of the survivors and families of the victims in the decision-making process will prove indispensable for the city’s and community’s commemoration efforts.

GRACE (Gender Research Advisory Council + Education)

Florida has received national attention for recent state-wide policies against transgender and non-binary students in schools. The removal of books from public schools in 2021 led by the “Parents’ Rights” movement prompted the founding of the Florida Freedom to Read Project. This project focuses primarily on protecting students’ rights to access all ideas and information in public schools. GRACE is working toward changing public perception of trans and non-binary students who, under recent policies regarding bathroom use for students, are being denied an inclusive environment that provides access to gender-neutral bathrooms. Students are now forbidden to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity if it is different from their sex.

This challenge has varied county by county. The diverse demographics in the Orlando metro area have resulted in different reactions to the exclusionary policies coming from the Florida State Legislature. In Orange County, which encompasses Orlando-proper, the community has reacted in support of trans and non-binary students by upholding and furthering accommodations. In more conservative neighboring counties such as Seminole County and Osceola County, the legislation has been implemented to the detriment of many students.

As a result of these discriminatory policies against students, many families, especially those with LGBTQ+ children, have decided to leave the state and move to other parts of the country. This has resulted in the beginning of a “brain drain” in Florida. Many parents, particularly those who work in healthcare, are leaving the state, which will likely have negative impacts on the state’s economy. The restriction of public universities in the state from having Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) departments or programs has also made Florida’s education system less attractive to potential talent.

Civil society organizations like Zebra Youth have stepped in to support children and their families. Zebra Youth is a non-profit organization that assists at-risk LGBTQ+ youth ages 13 to 24 to avoid homelessness and maintain access to healthcare, mental health counseling, and education. They are especially sensitive to the needs of African American and Latino LGBTQ+ youth who make up a large percentage of their network in the Orlando metropolitan area.

Pulse Interim Memorial

The group’s visit to the Pulse Interim Memorial at the site of the tragic shooting in 2016 resulted in a mix of thoughts and emotions among participants. It was first noted that the barrier erected around the former nightclub featuring photos of the victims and the community did not fully conceal structural damage to the building, now empty for over seven years. Many in the group agreed that demolishing the building was inevitable, as using the structure for other purposes would be unacceptable. What the community could do with the neglected building was compared to the action taken in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, where the entire school was demolished and rebuilt. It was questioned whether it was necessary or appropriate to construct a permanent memorial on the nightclub’s grounds, which has been debated in the Orlando community since the establishment of the OnePulse Foundation. Everyone agreed that commemoration is essential, and some noted that erecting a memorial at another location would not necessarily fall short of appropriately memorializing the victims.

The Center – Orlando

The Center is the oldest community organization serving Orlando’s LGBTQ+ residents that provides a long list of services. In 2022, more than 650 individuals were seen by The Center for mental health counseling. The Center also provides free HIV and STD testing, distributes Narcan, and works closely with the local health department. The Center also addresses the food insecurity in the area, gives out 100,000 free condoms every month, and provides colleges and local bath houses with access to mobile health units. Its case management program is the largest service that is provided to the entire community and includes legal referrals , for example for individuals who lost their employment due to their sexual orientation, and career support.

As a designated “safe space,” The Center is a haven for LGBTQ+ individuals and groups. Its facilities are used by other community groups as well, including two churches that meet regularly for service on Sundays. While AGI was visiting The Center, a recreational hour was being held in the conference space that featured senior members of the LGBTQ+ community, demonstrating the positive impact the organization has on bringing Orlandians of all backgrounds and ages together.

Since Florida is one of 29 U.S. states in which an individual can be denied housing and/or fired from their job for being LGBTQ+ identifying, the Center’s work is of particular importance. It assists its community with finding housing and provides career counseling. Its work on housing assistance is a program that is especially impactful for LGBTQ+ senior citizens who disproportionately lack a family network that can care for them as they age.

After the state government pulled funding for mental health provisions in 2020 and 2021, The Center received increased donations from private sources—including Disney—that allowed its important work to continue. Despite these efforts, the general political and funding environment for LGBTQ+ communities in Florida appears to be rather precarious and difficult.

The Center oversees the programs that were implemented by United Way and Central Florida after the 2016 Pulse tragedy. With four locations, the Center provides mental health counseling and assistance to the survivors and family members of the tragedy as well as the larger community. Currently, 92 survivors of the nightclub shooting are being served by The Center.

South Beach Art Deco Welcome Center – LGBTQ+ History Informational Session

The LGBTQ+ community in Miami in the 1930s, like many other communities in the United States, experienced hostility from law enforcement; police raided and shut down gay nightclubs. During the first half of the 20th century, the South Beach community had primarily been composed of a Jewish and immigrant population. This began to change with the rise of the hospitality industry in the 1960s and 1970s. The hospitality industry in the region brought a diverse mix of people to the area, particularly gay men. The influx of gay men to South Beach also birthed a vibrant nightlife in the area. In recent years, gentrification has pushed many gay residents and nightclubs out of the area, resulting in new LGBTQ+ communities, most notably in Wilton Manors and adjacent Fort Lauderdale, just north of Miami.

Another important aspect of the LGBTQ+ presence in the region was the involvement in art preservation. South Beach, which is world-renowned for having a high concentration of art deco architecture, witnessed LGBTQ+ artists come to the architecture’s defense in the mid-20th century. In the 1980s, South Beach art deco structures got their signature pastel coloring when Leonard Horowitz, a New York artist and gay man, proposed a pastel color palette to the community director. Many in South Beach had been accustomed to the buildings’ traditional all-white color scheme, but Horowitz managed to win over the community. The new color palette allowed for the architectural details of the buildings to be highlighted, which added to the vibrant appeal of the city.

Miami-Dade County was the first county in the United States to include gay rights in the Human Rights Ordinance that passed in the 1970s. Brayer explained that this ordinance was repealed during the “Save Our Children” campaign famously led by Anita Bryant but reestablished in the 1990s.

Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce

The Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (MDGLCC) is one of 58 LGBTQ+ chambers of commerce across the United States. Their work supporting local LGBTQ+-owned businesses includes identifying these businesses in the community and providing them with certification from the chamber, which allows preferential access to a variety of larger enterprises.

The National LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce estimated that LGBTQ+ businesses make up $1.7 trillion in the U.S. economy. It was also noted that $1.65 billion is spent by LGBTQ+ visitors to the Miami-Dade area annually. Certification for LGBTQ+-owned enterprises elevates them to minority status. This minority status gives LGBTQ+ businesses greater ability to interact with larger companies, particularly for procurement services.

Even with a supporting organization in the Miami-Dade region for LGBTQ+ business owners, the MDGLCC still struggles to involve lesbian- and trans-owned businesses. The lack of involvement from the trans community is most likely due to fear of retaliation from extremist individuals and the tense political climate toward the trans community in Florida. Many trans business owners have expressed fear of the visibility that being associated with the chamber would bring. Trans-owned businesses, from the chamber’s research, typically prefer to interact with one another, creating a much smaller operating economy. To create more opportunities for the involvement of the trans community, the chamber has created scholarships for trans business owners that support their growth.

Understanding the lack of interest from lesbian businesses to become involved with the chamber is a major obstacle. Regular conferences with other LGBTQ+ chambers of commerce across the United States have shown that this phenomenon is particular to the Miami-Dade region. Lesbian business involvement with LGBTQ+ chambers of commerce is much stronger in areas like Seattle, WA. The MDGLCC hopes to develop a better understanding of how to bring lesbian business owners into the chamber.

Through discussion with other LGBTQ+ chambers, the rise in hate crimes in Florida, paired with the anti-LGBTQ+ laws being passed by the state government, has contributed to fear of traveling to Florida. This has greatly impacted the ability of the MDGLCC to organize and host constructive conferences that incorporate the voices of intersectional LGBTQ+ individuals, notably voices of LGBTQ+ people of color.

Stonewall National Museum and Archives, Fort Lauderdale

The Stonewall National Museum and Archives collects and preserves media and other important items related to the LGBTQ+ community and pushes for equal rights in the United States. The institution holds approximately 30,000 books and is one of only a handful of LGBTQ+ lending libraries in the country. It also protects items such as posters from gay rights movements, an extensive t-shirt collection, and celebrity garments from pop culture. Storytelling and history—particularly related to the LGBTQ+ equal rights movement—can be an important tool in combating the challenges of today.

Preservation also functions as a counter effort against the backlash from opposition. Some of the items in the organization’s collection feature the “Save Our Children” campaign, headed by Anita Bryant across Florida in the 1970s. While history does not always repeat itself, it often rhymes. This is incredibly relevant in light of Florida Governor DeSantis signing the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents.

The visit also included a discussion with inter-generational community members. One point that particularly resonated with the group was that LGBTQ+ identities are the only identities that transcend nations and cultures. The group discussed different experiences with coming out, and how navigating their own cultures poses its own particular set of challenges. Young and senior members of the LGBTQ+ community discussed how treatment in society has improved but continues to be painful and challenging for many people. The dialogue between younger and older participants in the discussion reiterated the importance of storytelling and how the younger generations can learn from the previous to better support the fight for equality.

This program is generously funded by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz(BMWK) (Transatlantic Program of the Federal Republic of Germany with Funds through the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry for Economics and Climate Action (BMWK)), the AGI Harry & Helen Gray Humanities Program and funds from The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Organizations with which the project participants will engage:

  • Office of Multicultural Affairs, Orlando Mayor's Office
  • The Center - Orlando
  • Miami Design Preservation League - Art Deco Welcome Center
  • Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (MDGLCC)
  • Stonewall National Museum Archives and Library