‘It’s time’: Small conservative group brings LGBT equality movement to St. Johns County

As the sun set and the evening rains dissipated, Elizabeth Granite stood in the production area of Ancient City Brewing and checked her cellphone as she bounced between the handful of people standing among the tables, talking in small groups. The rains, she suspected, were keeping people away.


The turnout for the Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality, or CRSE, event Thursday night wasn’t what she and a small group of organizers had hoped for, but they were no less passionate about their message as they answered questions and discussed topics surrounding the equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“We are here in a personal capacity as conservatives to say ‘it’s time,’ ” Jessica Fernandez said.

Fernandez, a Miami Republican, was Florida’s youngest delegate to the party’s 2016 national convention and executive director of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans. She and Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE Foundation (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), have taken events like Thursday’s to Tallahassee and Miami in the past year or so.

It was at one of those events that they bumped into Granite, a committee member of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans and president of the St. Johns County Young Republicans.

“I said, ‘We have to bring this to St. Johns County,’ ” Granite said of that initial meeting.

But Thursday night’s turnout suggests they might have more of a struggle in this heavily conservative region finding those receptive to their message.

The organizers of Thursday’s event boast 350 signatures from conservatives around the state who have put their name to the CRSE pledge, saying they are “committed to promoting a center-right movement that champions the potential of every individual — including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).”

“We believe every individual should be free from discrimination and that no one should be fired or denied service because of who they are,” the pledge reads, in part. “We believe that treating others the way we want to be treated is about protecting all of our individual freedoms.”

“You don’t have to be on the left to realize everyone is different,” Granite said as she talked about what got her involved in the movement and motivated her to bring it to the county she calls home.

She and Fernandez said the movement isn’t just about doing what is right; it could be good for the economy, too.

Their literature cites a study that found that Florida’s economy could see a $5.4 billion boost “from adopting equal treatment for all people.”

Such a boost, they said, could come from attracting the typically more progressive tech companies like Amazon, Facebook or Google who tend to have a more diverse workforce.

Asked whether it might seem crass to link an equality movement to economic benefits, they said that because conservatives tend to be more “business-minded,” talking in terms of jobs and growth was important to getting their message out.

Whether the political climate in St. Johns County — particularly when it comes to LGBT issues — is conducive to attracting such companies remains to be seen.

Just recently, a transgender student at Nease High School sued the schools, asking the district to change the policy that has required him to use gender-neutral bathrooms since September 2015, shortly after he began identifying as a male.

The suit spurred a bit of a backlash from St. Johns County Republican Party Chairman Bill Korach, who, in a letter that called those bringing the suit “LBGT bullies,” asked residents to email School Board member Tommy Allen and voice their opposition to any such change.

In a phone interview on Friday, Korach, whose blog “The Report Card” carries such headlines as “Pediatrician and Pastor Oppose Transgender School Indoc — ‘It’s Child Abuse’ ” and “Southern Poverty Law Center Pushing LGBT in Schools” — said he was not aware of Thursday’s event ahead of time.

While he stopped short of saying he would sign the pledge, he said he had talked with Granite since the event and it was his understanding that the CRSE effort was mostly about workplace protection and “job discrimination.”

“I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.

“I just wanted to make sure they weren’t talking about indoctrination in public schools or forcing bakers to bake wedding cakes if they go against their faith,” he said.

But asked whether some of his rhetoric surrounding such issues, particularly the school issue, contributed to a climate that might hurt efforts to attract companies like Amazon, Korach said he didn’t think so and that the two were not at all related.

“That’s a whole different thing; that’s not what this is about,” he said.

The transgender bathroom issue, he said, was about whether or not “we have the authority to determine our own gender.”

“I think that’s insanity,” he said. “I don’t want to blur these two things together.”

Korach said any “pushback” from conservatives when it comes to LGBT issues centers mostly on issues of religion. He offered a hypothetical example of a pastor who asserted that marriage should be between a man and a woman and having that labeled as “hate speech.”

“You know we’ve got a problem with that,” he said.

Granite, on Thursday, didn’t weigh in on the cake debate, but said she was aware of Korach’s views on other topics and the stance he took with the Nease lawsuit and said none of that should deter her, or others, from signing on to the equality movement.

“That’s one person’s opinion,” she said.

Asked where she came down on the bathroom issue, Granite offered only a short response: “Everyone is equal.”