by Robert Karp
Is it possible for one person to squeeze so much out of life in 65 years on this earth? Frederick Pratt sure put it to the test.
Fred was born on January 20, 1956 in Pittsburgh PA. He grew up with spina bifida and relied on a wheelchair for mobility. In those days, the only schools available to him were for special education students with learning disabilities. He was not one of them. So in the 1960s he moved to St Petersburg, FL, to live with his grandparents and attended a school there that did accommodate students with wheelchairs. Wheelchair accessibility was just starting to become more common, but not prevalent in most places.
He ended up graduating high school and then attended University of South Florida in Tampa from 1977–1980 to complete a political science degree. It was at this time that he realized a second major life challenge—dealing with persistent and widespread homophobia, much of it undisguised and meant to hurt.
In the Samuel Proctor oral history series (which the Iguana published in 2014), Fred describes his gradual coming-out process in the 1970s as well as the rampant homophobia at USF and other places. Like so many other LGBTQ young people, he felt isolated and searched for supportive groups at USF, of which there were none active at the time.
After moving to Gainesville, in the 1980s, he obtained employment as a public assistance specialist with the state Department of Children and Families to administer Medicaid, food stamps and other programs. He described Gainesville as a much more tolerant environment, but that would be tested in future years.
The first time many people came to know Fred was from volunteering for phone banks at Democratic Party headquarters or through a local Democratic candidate’s campaign. It was a position he enjoyed doing, and he was very good at it. He also helped found the Alachua County Democratic Party’s Disability Caucus. He also served on boards for the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida, the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida, Stonewall Democrats and the Center for Independent Living.
Fred was notoriously independent, and took pride in driving himself to many events, be it a campaign fundraiser or volunteering for LGBTQ and AIDS support organizations. He worked assiduously for disability rights, and was the go-to guy to learn about any aspects of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He attended many state and national events as well, one of which included a Stonewall 25 commemorative march in New York City where, by chance, he encountered a film crew. Later it turned out he would see himself as a cameo in the 1994 movie “Jeffrey”.
Fred worked hard to help pass the landmark ADA law, but he knew that laws only go so far. You have to hold folks’ feet to the fire. Famously, when he attended the 1996 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, he was provided a special place on the convention hall floor up front to view the proceedings. Instead, he encountered a scrum of reporters in front of him. Clearly this was not going to work. He proceeded to politely, but firmly, notify the DNC chain of command that he needed to sit with the Florida delegation. After ratcheting up the pressure, the DNC built a platform with the Florida delegation so he could have an unobstructed view.
Fred was a part of all the LGBTQ rights struggles in Alachua County since the early 1990s. Because he was so easily identifiable in photos and on TV, he was the target of harassing, hateful phone calls, often times called out as “that crippled queer.” He described this abuse and outright threats as taking a mental toll on him, but ultimately he was in it for the long haul on any human rights issue, whether it be disability, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, or Black Lives Matter.
Fred was an early advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and volunteered at the North Central Florida AIDS Network and co-founded the Gainesville Area AIDS Project.
In the last years of life, he faced multiple challenges to his health. Yet, through it all, long-time friend Carol Gordon described it as Fred teaching her how to have an “attitude of gratitude” for life. She and other close friends shared that attitude right up to the day he died on June 8.
How much can one person squeeze out of a life? A lot it turns out. Fred showed us all how to do that, no matter what cards life has dealt you from the start, or even along the way.
For an oral history interview with Fred Pratt, check out https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1242.