Martin’s young life was stolen before he could enjoy the boyish snacks he carried on his way home. What's worse is that his killing was not avenged, but justified by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The controversial policy allows people to utilize deadly force in matters where they can claim self-defense. But the bloody tragedy of Stand Your Ground endures: Markeis McGlockton, another unarmed Black Floridian, was killed in 2018 by a white resident. While his killer was later convicted of manslaughter, it was the Stand Your Ground law, attorney Michele Rayner-Goolsby says, that delayed his arrest.
Ultimately, policies like these spurred her interest in politics. Today, Rayner-Goolsby will be representing Florida’s 70th congressional district following a successful Democratic primary and no Republican challengers. In conversation with Blavity, she explained how her work as a civil rights attorney catalyzed her interest in politics.
“Markeis McGlockton’s father said 'I knew about Stand Your Ground, I knew it was a law, but I never knew it would affect me in such a personal way,'" the candidate told Blavity. “This is what’s happening in Tallahassee, D.C., and in other cities across the nation. We must understand how these laws are personally impacting people of color.”
Rayner-Goolsby, 38, will be the first queer Black woman seated in the Florida House of Representatives. She says intersectionality has colored her life and career for as long as she can remember. And that it’s time that dynamism is reflected in the House.
“I’ve had to work at the intersection of my identity,” Rayner-Goolsby said. “I'm always me. By waking up and showing up, I'm living at these intersections. My work as an attorney, especially surrounding anti-Black legislation, impacts the way I understand that if one group of people are not free, none of us are. If Black folks aren't free, our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community aren’t free, our Latinx brothers and sisters aren't free. These systems of freedom and equity all intersect.”
But Rayner-Goolsby isn't the only candidate slated to make Floridian history. Jasmen Rogers-Shaw, also a queer Black woman is in the running for a seat in the House representing district 95. In fact, she says, this class of candidates is full of folks ready to disrupt the status quo.
“This class of LGBTQ candidates running for the Florida legislature is the largest in history," Rogers-Shaw, 30, told Blavity. "There are 18 of us that have qualified for the ballot. So this would be the queerest class if we are elected.”
Black women represent the most reliable voting bloc in the nation, AFL-CIO reports. Still, Rogers-Shaw asserts, they are often overlooked by democratic candidates who may take their vote for granted. The candidate described the excited embrace she’s received from Black women on the campaign trail — many of whom say she is the first candidate to call them.
“Not only are Black women constantly showing up to vote, even if candidates don't fully represent our interests, but we're also bringing other people with us. We're bringing neighborhoods, we're bringing families, we're telling everybody else to go vote,” Rogers-Shaw said. “I've been on the phone with Black women who hear my name and they’re so impressed they start screaming to the people in the house, telling them my favorite thing: 'we're all going to go vote.'"
While Black women voters consistently turn out on Election Day, their needs are far from monolithic. And thus, Rogers-Shaw finds, intersectionality must be central to any legislation proposing to impact their lives.
“Black women are teachers, parents, educators and union members. A bulk of them are immigrants. We're on the fringes of housing and income. We're healthcare workers. All of these are our stories,” Rogers-Shaw, whose parents emigrated from the Caribbean, explained. “Every additional intersection that you add to that, whether it's sexuality, gender, age, education, all add to the beauty of the solutions that we can come up with. We cannot think that a legislature full of white, rich cis men is going to make policy that changes the conditions of poor Black women.”
She isn't lying. The 2018 American Values Survey found that Black women listed issues of racial inequality, healthcare, the widening wealth gap and the economy as the central issues impacting their lives, according to the Brookings Institute.
Naturally, equitable access to education, economics, healthcare, as well as reproductive rights have been centered in both candidates’ campaigns, Rayner-Goolsby told Blavity.
In response to the needs that Black women voice, both Rayner-Goolsby and Rogers-Shaw intend to sponsor the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, a bill that adds gender identity and sexual orientation to a state statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex or marital status.
Before their decisions to run for office, both Floridians describe trips down the “rabbit hole” reading which bills passed in the Florida House and which were voted down. For Rogers-Shaw, it was legislation regulating swimsuit bottoms, which passed while bills addressing food deserts across the state died in the House. For Rayner-Goolsby, it was the denial of a bill written to protect LGBTQ+ youth while reporting acts of bullying.
“That vote happened two or three days after I decided to run, almost like God was saying 'yep, there it is,'" the 38-year-old said. “LGBTQ people have come so far: we are able to get married, raise families, but we still can be discriminated against at work. Our babies aren’t really protected in school. These are some of the things we need to move forward on.”
In the process of reimagining a more fully representative future, Rogers-Shaw launched Folding Chair Consulting. The organization is dedicated to championing Black women candidates: hopefuls that, the founder notes, often garner less support than their white counterparts, even in races wherein Black women incumbents face off against freshman candidates.
The vision was simple, Rogers-Shaw explains: to help Black women candidates climb to the mountainous heights which she knows they are capable.
“I want to provide the uncompromising, authentic training that they need as Black women to show up in this work as fully themselves and still win,” the 30-year-old said. “I've been to so many candidate trainings where folks make it seem like we're all on a level playing field. But what I know is that white women that are not incumbents, more often than not, are able to raise more money than Black women incumbents.”
Remembering a candidate who was encouraged to cut her locs, Rogers-Shaw finds that authenticity often comes at a cost for Black women candidates, who she says are often pressured to maintain a single hairstyle throughout their campaign, to avoid being seen as “inauthentic.”
“So what do Black women candidates need?vNumber one, I think people just need to get out of our way,” she asserts. “We need the space to be able to build as boldly as I know we can. And then I need people to contribute their resources and their time in the way that they would to other candidates. Trust Black women candidates in the same way you trust mediocre candidates.”
In her campaign today, Rogers-Shaw draws on her earlier experience in grassroots movements fighting to end police violence. She finds that political candidacy has only sweetened memories of her activist work — and her mother’s disapproval, remembered with a throaty laugh.
“Our Black parents do the best they can with the rusty ass tools that they were given,” The Folding Chair Consulting founder said. "And I think that can translate to us as hopelessness. But watching my mom slowly see what is possible and evolve into such an amazing person over the past 5 years makes me so excited. I love showing her that we can break away from the patriarchy, from all of it, and build the freest, most beautiful lives for ourselves. That keeps me humble. It keeps me doing this work.”
Likewise, Rayner-Goolby draws inspiration from the women that have come before her. It is the enduring spirit of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, that she says guides her own journey.
“Even though she died before I was born, I still lean into her unbossed and unbought attitude. We are in a moment now where we need that kind of leadership,” she explained. “Folks need to know when they send you to Tallahassee that you are for the people. That is how I've worked in my career as an attorney. But there is a higher calling, a higher level of service. And that’s why I look forward to serving the folks of district 70.”
Rogers-Shaw echoes the sentiment.
“And she was fly!” she added of Chisholm.
Indeed, the two candidates’ stand atop platforms representing the most vulnerable among Americans. Rogers-Shaw’s campaign, she explains, is guided by the legacy she hopes to leave behind: a stormy gust of wind, leaving swinging, open doors for queer candidates of color to come.
“What is the groundwork that we're laying for Black girls coming after us, for queer people? What is the groundwork that we're laying politically when we give people hope through our election?” she posits. “I want to work on the campaign of the first Black trans women in the state of Florida and get her elected, too. I want to make sure that we're getting Black women immigrants elected to political offices, to include their stories. That's how we can shift the political landscape for generations.”