Inside the Florida Town Where the Government Is 100 Percent LGBTQ
Wilton Manors has achieved a quiet milestone.
A rainbow police car in Wilton Manors, Florida. All photos by author
Wilton Manors, Florida, a quaint, clean city of 11,000 just north of Fort Lauderdale in Broward County, boasts on its website that as of 2010, it was the “second gayest city” in the United States. A rainbow-colored flag flies above City Hall and a rainbow-painted squad car with “Policing With Pride” inscribed across its rear window sits out front. And as of the 2018 election it’s the second city in the country—after Palm Springs, California—to have an entirely LGBTQ self-identifying city government.
The elected city government consists of an all-nonpartisan commission: Mayor Justin Flippen, Vice Mayor Tom Green, and commissioners Gary Resnick, Julie Carson, and Paul Rolli.
Flippen, who was previously the vice mayor, has said he wants to promote the city’s small-town sensibility and protect their traditional single-family neighborhoods. He also wants to fight the rising tides and floods plaguing South Florida and hopes to gain public approval for the Oakland Park/Wilton Manors Joint Climate Action Plan, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 percent each year through the year 2028. The city plans to accomplish this by updating building standards and by keeping the city centralized rather than letting it sprawl. In addition, Flippin plans to increase the capacity of their infrastructure for water and sewage, which will hopefully keep the city above sea level.
Flippen wanted to make clear that the city commission is like other local governments around the country and just wants to provide progressive and efficient programs to Wilton Manors residents. He summarized his sentiment with a Lady Gaga quote: “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life, [we’re] on the right track baby.”
Here are some portraits I took of the five city leaders:
MAYOR JUSTIN S. FLIPPEN
My faith in we the people to embrace and elect public servants who appeal to our better angels and higher ideals over our darker demons and prejudices remains strong. Polarization in politics isn’t healthy for us. To move forward you find ways to come together, build consensus, and embrace progress. We the American people have more power to exercise to keep our future bright and the wheels of progress moving forward than we do apathy to permit our nation to be led backward into darkness and stagnation.
VICE MAYOR TOM GREEN
I worked quietly to further LGBT rights in Broward County for decades. I had a job where I probably would have been fired if I was openly gay. I was never out front even in organizations that I helped organize in the 1970s and 1980s. Now as vice mayor of the city of Wilton Manors I can be an openly gay American.
COMMISSIONER GARY RESNICK
I decided to come out when I lived in DC, so when I came to Florida I was already out. It hasn't been a big issue because the people are generally accepting in Southeast Florida. They are people from up north and other liberal areas. In ‘98, when I won for the first time, the headline everywhere was, “Openly gay man wins city commission.” It was strange—I never expected that, it's not like that’s why I ran.
While I wasn't keeping it a secret, I wasn't running down the street yelling it either. But I started getting contacted by people across the country, and was able to aid various organization and help families dealing with their kids coming out at a young age. So I got a lot of from people who wanted to let me know that they were inspired by the things I was saying or they saw a speech I would make—because there hadn't been a lot of public role models in the gay community.
When I won, everything was on my agenda, but I pushed for some gay rights issues. I didn't get resistance from the city commission, but I got resistance from some residents. There were some institutions that were more difficult to correct, such as the police.
I visit other commissioners in other cities, across Florida, and I’ve developed friendships with them. In cities in South Florida there is never any issue with one’s sexual orientation, but further north it isn’t as widely accepted. But by getting to know each other they lose their fear and usually we become friends. I can’t remember a single experience when I‘ve gotten to know other city officials from across the state and they have discriminated against me.
COMMISSIONER JULIE CARSON
I believe the symbolism [in the election of our commission] is in that we are five highly qualified and committed elected officials who represent a diverse community and who work together to create sound public policy for everyone in the community.
The future is dependent on our leaders maintaining their humanity, values, and authenticity. In Wilton Manors and the larger South Florida community, we are fortunate to have progressive elected officials who are approaching our community’s needs and future in a compassionate but practical fashion.
COMMISSIONER PAUL ROLLI
We are entering a period of great change, we must harness the opportunities that come along and work to guide the change to be positive for the city. We want the urban amenities without losing our special sense of place. I see younger and newer residents getting involved in city government through participation in boards and city committees.
I am hopeful. I see lots of young people getting involved in the process and to me that is promising. Earlier this year we saw the governor of California’s wife change her title from first lady to first partner. What ultimately results from the many new voices is something I am eager to see.
Zak Bennett, a Miami Beach local, is a photojournalist who reports for various publications and NGOs across the Western Hemisphere and Europe. In addition, Zak is an instructor at National Geographic and the New York Times where he has led healthcare, conflict resolution, and rural development expeditions