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In the end, Tampa council upholds idea of equality

It seemed fitting that people lined up on opposite sides of the City Council chambers to make their pleas before the big vote, everyone for equality on the right, everyone against it on the left.

What brought all those citizens to downtown Tampa to pack a public meeting on a workaday Thursday was a no-brainer, really. The City Council would vote on whether to include one more category to the list already protected by the city's human rights ordinance: transgender people.

But some who came to speak seemed to believe they were being asked to endorse men dressing and living as women and vice versa, to embrace this, to invite them to dinner, their answer being a horrified and angry No.

In truth, the vote would merely add transgender people to those already protected against discrimination in housing and jobs, something Tampa already says you can't do based on things like race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. More than a dozen states, several cities in Florida and many large corporations have transgender protections.

But it packed the house nonetheless, for-and-against lines stretching the length of the room to give the council an earful. On one side, a woman thumbing a Bible, a man in an American flag necktie, another wearing a "Bush-Cheney '04" T-shirt. On the other, people, some obviously dressed as a sex different from the one into which they were born, wearing stickers that read "Tampa Supports All Citizens." At least they hoped so.

Funny, as the meeting wore on, how much two sides that far apart had in common. Both had young and old and ex-military, sharp suits and worn jeans. Both included Christians, self-professed ones anyway, and parents who wanted the right kind of world for their children. Both talked "values," "discrimination" and "civil rights." Both said what's "right," what's "fair." "Voter" came up, too, as if council members had to be reminded that an issue this inflammatory — even unnecessarily so — might come back to burn them.

The against side launched a big, scary red herring by warning this would unleash perverts to stalk their children, invoking even the restrooms at Chuck E. Cheese's. Later a transgender person with long blond hair asked whether council members had any questions. They did not. A few faces up on that dais made it clear they definitely did not.

Several police officers were on the scene, but both sides stayed polite, even after an 18-year-old homeschooled senior at the podium said this: If she decided she were a dog, would that give her the right to relieve herself in someone's yard? Okay, so there were quiet sounds of dismay then.

When it was finally time to vote, two council members stressed "liberty and justice for all," emphasis on "for all." But the strongest, best words came from Chairman Tom Scott, a pastor who struggled mightily with this because of his own beliefs. "I believe Jesus loves every person in this room," he said finally, and voted yes. It passed.

The day wasn't about special privilege, free passes or mandating that anyone approve of someone across the room and a million miles away (though a vote for tolerance is always nice.)

It was that word that kept getting thrown around — "fair" — as in basic protection for your fellow citizens, whether you agree with them or not.

In the end, Tampa council upholds idea of equality 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 8:42pm]
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