Shevrin Jones didn’t want somebody else to tell his story. After coming out to friends and family shortly after he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2012, the 35-year-old lawmaker decided to tell it himself.
After finalizing his divorce from his ex-wife in 2015, Jones finally opened up about his sexual orientation in a Miami Herald interview last year. While the profile describes him as a “private man,” the newspaper notes that he was inspired to go public following the sudden death of his brother from a pulmonary embolism. Jones claimed the moment convinced him it was time to “start living [his] truth” as a gay man.
“[T]hat could have been me,” he said at the time. “I could drop dead living behind the scenes of something that could have helped someone else.”
However, there was a practical element to the four-term House representative’s decision to come forward. Jones had been planning to run for the 35th district seat currently occupied by Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) in 2020. Like Jones, Braynon is term-limited from seeking reelection.
Ahead of that race, Jones knew he would have to out himself or someone would do it for him.
“Voters are not dumb,” he tells NewNowNext. “They would find out eventually, and I didn’t want them to think that I was hiding it from them. There’s nothing wrong with living your truth. It always will set you free and set somebody else free.”
After the 2018 coming out made Jones the first black and gay member of Florida’s state legislature, he is preparing to do it all over again. If elected to the represent the district—which comprises portions of Broward and Miami-Dade County—next year, he would become the first openly LGBTQ Senator in the state’s history.
When asked about what the potential milestone means to him, Jones deflects with humor. “I came into the legislature married to a woman,” he says. “I’m leaving gay.”
Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, is more candid when discussing his hopes for Jones in the state Senate. Claiming the victory would be “transformational,” he predicts the 35th district contest “will be unequivocally, singularly the most important race” for the statewide advocacy group in the 2020 election.
I'm overwhelmed by the support received on Friday night for the launch of our campaign for Florida Senate, District 35. The People's Party was a success because of you all, my friends.
— Shevrin Jones (@ShevrinJones) March 4, 2019
Just weeks after Jones officially declared his candidacy in March, he has already earned the backing of the Equality Florida Action PAC in 2020. It’s the political action committee’s first and only endorsement thus far.
Saunders, who was one of the state’s first openly LGBTQ lawmakers to win an election, claims it’s “hard not to be emotional” about Jones’ chances.
“The Florida Senate is 40 people, and for one of those people to be an openly LGBTQ person with such a strong record of advocacy in the space—I think it will change it,” he tells NewNowNext. “He is the right candidate in the right seat in the right election cycle. All of these stars have aligned.”
The lawmaker’s candidacy arrives at a critical moment for Florida. Earlier this year, the Sunshine State weighed a statewide preemption bill—known as House Bill 3—that would overturn LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances across the state. Local laws extending protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity would have been wiped off the books in 11 cities and 20 counties.
As NewNowNext previously reported, the passage of HB 3 would have led to 600,000 LGBTQ people losing their basic civil rights overnight.
That bill was eventually amended to fix its anti-LGBTQ elements before being killed altogether. Saunders credits Jones as one of the key reasons that bill did not become law. He personally met with Republican leadership in the Florida House to explain how HB 3 would impact the LGBTQ community if passed.
What gave him the ability to have those conversations, Saunders says, is that Jones has a “record of bipartisan work.” A bill authored by Jones that would make tampons and sanitary napkins more readily available to women in incarcerated in Florida prisons has been unanimously approved by three different subcommittees in a chamber where the GOP controls 60% of the seats.
Jones credits these dialogues to the relationships he’s built through six years in the House, which only deepened after he came out last year.
“When you’re friends with people [in the legislature], they don’t want to do anything to hurt you,” he claims. “You have opportunity to bring those people into your world and allow them to spend some time in your shoes.”
BREAKING: Rep. @ShevrinJones and Rep. @AmyMercado Bill to Ensure Dignity for Incarcerated Women Unanimously Passes its Second House Committee! HB 49 provides feminine hygiene products and increases protections for incarcerated women. #DignityFlorida #FlaPol #DignityFL pic.twitter.com/jieEbEjTuv
— New Florida Majority (@NewFLMajority) April 2, 2019
A seat in the Florida Senate would put Jones a unique position to advocate for equality at a time when the state has yet to pass a single piece of pro-LGBTQ legislation at the statewide level. In Florida, it’s still legal in many areas for a landlord to refuse a lesbian couple’s application for an apartment, or an employer to fire a worker who begins transitioning on the job. Conversion therapy has yet to be banned.
Although Florida has struggled to keep pace with advances in LGBTQ rights over the past decade, Jones knows that his state can evolve. He knows because his family did.
Part of the reason he stayed in the closet for so long, Jones says, is that his father is a pastor at Koinonia Worship Center, a historically black church located in Pembroke Park. His father used to preach “fire and brimstone” during Sunday worship service, but the tone of his sermons began to shift after Jones came out to him.
“Now, he speaks about love,” Jones claims. “He speaks about us treating each other [with love].”
While his religiously conservative father still believes homosexuality is a sin, Jones says his family has learned to accept and embrace the person he is. According to Jones, it was “evident how proud [his] parents” were when they attended his campaign kickoff event last month, which was called “The People’s Rally.”
“All parents have their idea of what their child’s life should look like,” he says. “When you go a different route, it takes them aback.”
As he prepares to help Florida down a new path, Jones is aware of the effort it will take in a state where the GOP has held majorities or supermajorities for the bulk of the past 30 years. “We have a long way to go,” he claims, repeating the sentence three more times for added emphasis.
But if he can find acceptance in a 10,000-strong megachurch, fighting for common ground in a 40-person Senate doesn’t seem too daunting.
“My goal is to continue fighting for people, and that goes for everyone,” Jones says. “There’s a way that we can coexist, work together, and do what’s right just for people. It’s a beautiful thing when we can respect one another.”