Randal Coffman can’t go home. Two weeks ago, his landlord told him she doesn’t want “faggots” on her property, and that he had to vacate, he says.
In Middleburg, the suburb of Jacksonville, Fla. where Coffman lives, his landlord’s request is legal. Coffman left and went to a friend’s house, where he has been staying ever since.
“It has really changed my view on how people look at me,” Coffman told INTO. “It just sucks because there’s nothing protecting me so anyone can treat me however [they] want.”
In 2017, the city of Jacksonville passed anti-discrimination protections protecting LGBTQ people in what was widely hailed as a watershed victory, but Florida lacks the same statewide protections. Middleburg, just over 30 miles south of Jacksonville, doesn’t have anti-discrimination protections on the books.
Now, some advocates say Coffman’s case could be the catalyst for statewide protections.
According to Coffman, the trouble started three days after he moved into an apartment attached to Jackie Cooper’s home on Dec. 1. Coffman alleges that Cooper told she didn’t want him to have girls stay over. He says he told her that wouldn’t be a problem because he’s gay.
“I don’t care if you’re gay, but I don’t want any faggots coming back and forth on my property,” Cooper allegedly told Coffman.
In a later conversation, which Coffman says he recorded with consent and provided to First Coast News, Cooper tells Coffman he has to vacate the apartment.
“You think I want homosexuals coming back and forth in my place like that?” she says.
INTO was unable to reach Cooper by phone, but Cooper denied the accusations to First Coast News, stating that she told Coffman to leave because he wouldn’t provide a copy of his driver’s license and his friends kept cars on her property for several days. Coffman refutes both.
Florida has seen a slew of anti-gay incidents over the last year. A string of transgender homicides in Jacksonville has drawn national media attention and sparked fears that a serial killer may be targeting the community.
Five transgender women were murdered in Florida in 2018, and a femme-presenting gay man who did drag was also gunned down. Another gay man, Leon Frazier, was murdered in Southeast Florida, reportedly by a homophobic roommate. Miami Pride this year was marred when four men reportedly beat a gay couple while yelling homophobic slurs. A transgender woman in Newberry woke up to find the words “move or die” scrawled across her garage door in September. In November, a Port Richey school made headlines when a teacher refused to support a trans student using the locker room that matched his gender.
Coffman, who grew up in Florida, said he has always identified as gay and faced discrimination because of it.
“I’ve never been able to hold hands with my boyfriend or kiss in public,” he said. “Jacksonville is a very big anti-gay town.”
He says after he was forced to leave his apartment on Dec. 14, he lost more than $1,000 in rent.
American Civil Liberties Union Staff Attorney Jimmy Midyette was part of the coalition behind Jacksonville’s anti-discrimination protections. He, too, says Coffman’s eviction sounds par for the course in the Sunshine State, especially over the last two years as the Trump Administration fuels anti-gay animus.
“It feels normal to me, but that’s probably a statement in and of itself in terms of what we’re used to in Florida,” he said.
But, he added, Coffman’s eviction points to a larger issue. “I think it could show the need for a statewide bill,” said Midyette.
Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director of Equality Florida, agrees. His organization has been making the case for statewide protections in the Florida Competitive Workforce Act for a decade.
“Randal’s case is one of the most well-documented and overtly discriminatory [cases], but we know that this type of discrimination continues to occur throughout the state and often in more subtle ways,” said Maurer. “I do think that stories like Randal’s are really compelling in illustrating the need for statewide protections.”
According to Equality Florida, advocates have successfully passed local measures that now cover 60 percent of Floridians. Maurer hopes to bring that 100 percent in 2019 with the passage of statewide protections, but that remains a hard sell. Last year, the bill had 69 bipartisan sponsors and cosponsors in the legislature but failed to even get a committee hearing. Both chambers remain Republican-controlled in the wake of the November midterms.
“I think I’m going to have to look up the law before I move,” Coffman notes. Coffman says LGBTQ advocates have reached out to him, stating that his eviction could demonstrate the need for a statewide measure.
In the meantime, he wonders if he needs to hide who he is.
“Do I need not tell anyone that I’m gay?” he asks. “Do I need to just act as straight as possible so I can live a normal life and people won’t judge me, or do I fight this and try to get laws passed?”