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Gay rights debate shows change

Some of the most bitter, divisive and crowded debates in the recent history of Tampa Bay's local governments have been waged over gay rights.

But this week the generally conservative Pinellas County Commission voted to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although it wasn't unanimous — the vote was 4-2 — there was none of the searing acrimony surrounding past debates.

"I was marveling at how times have changed," said former Democratic County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who took part in a joint Hillsborough Commission-Tampa City Council hearing that packed the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

"I think attitudes have changed dramatically," said Republican Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who championed the new ordinance. "We've all become much more tolerant of people who are different than we are."

But some reluctance remains, particularly regarding protections for transgendered people, who are born one gender but identify with the other.

Commissioners asked the county attorney to study that issue, as well as whether some exemptions should be carved out for people who believe the ordinance violates their religious beliefs. The county attorney will report back in about six weeks.

Some officials are still puzzling over the transgender issue. Said Commissioner Calvin Harris after the vote: "I don't even know what a transgender is."

A recent local example: Steve Stanton, the former city manager of Largo who was fired after announcing plans to become Susan. Even Stanton understands Harris' confusion.

"I think that's a very legitimate … very honest statement," Stanton said. "These are all really good people, and I know none of them would want to discriminate, but they also have to be sensitive to the needs of other people in the workplace."

Stanton said she believes a person undergoing a "medical protocol" to change genders, like herself, should be protected from discrimination. The issue is fuzzier for someone who identifies as one gender but decides on some days to dress as another gender. Even if she remained as city manager, "I would not have allowed a man to come to work cross-dressed as a woman," Stanton said. She said careful study of how these issues would play out in the workplace is prudent.

While Tuesday's vote suggests that attitudes have changed, interest groups on both sides of the issue were grumbling.

"We were disappointed that the Pinellas County commissioners weren't able to summon the courage that it would take to provide the strongest protections to the entire gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community,'' said Brian Winfield, a spokesman for Equality Florida. "But we are hopeful that in six weeks time that they will come back."

David Caton of the Florida Family Association, who has spent years fighting local gay rights ordinances, said the ordinance reflects Latvala's influence, not a wide change in community values.

"There was nobody that was as fervent and as incessant as she was," Caton said.

In 1991, the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission passed gay rights ordinances, touching off a local culture war that led the County Commission eventually to reverse itself.

A St. Petersburg Times reporter called the offices of all five Pinellas commissioners that year to ask if a similar ordinance would come up for a debate on the west side of Tampa Bay. Only one commissioner returned the call, and he said, "I'm not at all interested in introducing legislation on the off chance that there might be a problem."

In 1999, the Pinellas School Board adopted an antidiscrimination and antiharassment policy and the debate was filled with "screaming and yelling," said Latvala, a School Board member then. "It was the worst public meeting of my life."

But she called this week's debate "delightful." She thinks the difference is partly because gay and lesbian people "have gotten the message out that they live next door to you, they go to church with you, they go to school with you."

"It was very respectful," said Pinellas Commissioner Karen Seel. "Both sides of the issue were heard with very little comment from the crowd with boos or yeas. … I was pleasantly surprised."

Gay rights debate shows change 04/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2008 2:15pm]
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