Florida Gov. Rick Scott couldn’t attend the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches last week because he went to a memorial service for U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Rep. Young died last week after representing Floridians in Tallahassee and Washington for more than 50 years.
I’ve spent the past week trying to humanize Rep. Young in my mind and heart, because I’ve long dismissed him as a monster and bigot. It isn’t easy to change preconceived ideas about people and I admit it’s been easier to stereotype him than to try to see him as a “dedicated public servant and true gentleman” as Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant described him.
Tant said, “Young’s dedication to Florida and consistent civility has set the standard for all Florida public servants.” But that’s not how I perceived him.
In 2003, Circuit Judge Marvin Mounts, a man known for his immeasurable knowledge of local Florida history, sent me a gift upon his retirement one year before his death. As one of Florida’s longest-serving judges, he was notorious for retaining historical documents. He sent me an original copy of “Homosexuality and citizenship in Florida”, a report of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, with a note of encouragement to remind me of how far “we’ve” come – “we” meaning us as a society.
The document he sent me was published in 1964 by a committee of the Florida Legislature to investigate “the extent of infiltration into agencies supported by state funds by practicing homosexuals, the effect thereof on said agencies and the public, and the policies of various state agencies in dealing therewith.” The document is blatant propaganda and its effects across the nation cannot be understated. Language and conclusions in the report have justified anti-gay laws in Florida and across the country for decades.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young is listed among the members of the Florida Senate who served on the committee responsible for creating the report. Recommendations from the committee include “creating a central records repository for information on homosexuals arrested and convicted in Florida and provision that such records shall be open to the public employing agencies.”
Judge Mounts was the inspiration of Elmore Leonard’s character “Maximum Bob,” and he was known for his spiritedness. He was often described as a fair, compassionate man. As a young activist, I was honored to receive his gift and I am confident he gave me the document because he was a true historian, not to point out members of a 50 year old committee. Still, Rep. Young stuck out to me because he was still alive and in office.
Young’s voting record never deviated from the most conservative members of the House. He didn’t support marriage for same-sex couples or allowing gays to serve openly in the military. But at 82, he probably had even more difficulty changing his long-standing ideas about homosexuals than the old, Republican white men archetype cemented in my mind.
Although his views many not have evolved as much as some would like, in 1993 he affirmed the state had no business in such affairs stating, “that’s the decision of the people involved.”
Rep. Young lived long enough to watch our country’s view of “homosexuals” change, just as Judge Mounts predicted. Although Young clung tightly to what he defined as “traditional institutions,” I have to believe that somewhere inside – as a family man — he had some remorse over the antiquated belief that gays should be criminalized.
It shouldn’t take death to consider another’s life, but it sometimes does, and I hope Rep. Young is resting in peace. His family and friends should be proud of the man he was to the people he represented. Like all men and women, he should be remembered for his contributions over a lifetime, not for his biases.
The death of Rep. Young is a reminder of my own prejudices. I don’t want others to have to read my obituary to see if I lived a life dedicated to my family or community. Perhaps had we both been able to put aside our preconceptions of others we might have found a way to find ourselves on the same side, or at least close enough to see each other as human beings instead of political adversaries.
Tony Plakas is the CEO of Compass Community Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on twitter @tonyplakas.
Copyright © 2013, South Florida Sun-Sentinel