Openly gay state legislator: "No matter who you are, you deserve shot at success"
Walking the campus of the University of Central Florida with Joe Saunders, be prepared for strangers to stop and say, "congratulations."
This has happened frequently since November, when Saunders was elected as a Florida state representative. He and Dave Richardson of Miami share a special distinction as the first two openly gay legislators sworn in to Florida's Legislature.
"There are 120 people who are elected to represent 20 million people in Florida to the House of Representatives, and until this year, there has never ever been a person like me who's been elected to that body," Saunders said.
While representing their districts, the men also will represent citizens across Florida.
"They never had a seat at the table," Saunders said.
Until now, Florida was the largest state without any openly gay or lesbian representation, even though the LGBT population in Florida is estimated to be more than half a million.
"There's never been somebody who's sat in committee or sat on the floor and been able to bring that perspective, and I think that's really important," Saunders said.
Florida was one of seven states to elect openly gay lawmakers for the first time. Now, 33 states have LGBT members of state government.
"It won't be the only thing I talk about. It may rarely be the thing I talk about."
In fact, Saunders said he plans to focus his attention on places such as UCF: the state's public education system.
"I'm there to talk about a wide range of issues. The foreclosure crisis, to talk about the fact that our election system is a laughingstock across the country, to talk about the fact that tuition at universities like this keeps going up at the same time we cut budgets to the state university system."
As the Legislature prepares for big issues this session, Saunders vows to make every decision based on a principle he values.
"It's something really simple. No matter who you are, who you love, what language you speak, what country your parents were born in, you deserve a shot at success if you're willing to work for it."