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Hillsborough commission to consider barring discrimination against gays, transgenders

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Commission, which has a turbulent history of votes on gay rights issues, will discuss banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity next week, according to an agenda released Thursday evening.

Kevin Beckner, the county's first openly gay commissioner, proposed the discussion, which will put gay and transgender rights in the local spotlight in an election year. Transgender people are those who identify with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth.

Beckner's agenda item, which will end with a vote to ask the county attorney to write a draft amendment to the county's Human Rights Ordinance, would reinstate a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, and would expand county law to protect transgender people from discrimination in hiring, public accommodations, real estate transactions and county contracting.

The discussion is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. at next Wednesday's commission meeting.

Beckner is on vacation this week and was unavailable for comment Thursday evening. Fellow Democratic Commissioner Les Miller indicated support Thursday.

"Why should we be discriminating against anyone in Hillsborough County?" said Miller.

Al Higginbotham — the only other commissioner who could be reached — declined to comment until he read the agenda. Higginbotham is one of five Republicans on the commission.

The proposed county law would mirror one in the city of Tampa. Cities and counties across the country have approved similar measures to close gaps in federal anti-discrimination laws in recent years.

In 1991, Hillsborough commissioners approved a local law protecting gays from discrimination. In 1995, the commission reversed course. The vote to repeal anti-discrimination protections for gays set the tone for a socially conservative era.

Several subsequent attempts to restore the ban on discrimination against gays failed. In 2005, former Commissioner Ronda Storms successfully pushed a ban on any county recognition of gay pride. She had seen a gay pride display at a county library she disliked.

This series of votes gave the Hillsborough County Commission a reputation of being "screechingly homophobic," Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith said last year.

Beckner was elected in 2008, though, and last year asked his colleagues to repeal the ban on gay pride recognition. They did, unanimously. Two current commissioners — Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe — who had voted with Storms in 2005 changed their vote.

While that vote, and a move last year by all commissioners to sign a proclamation supporting GaYBOR Days, a local gay tourism event, seemingly marked a liberal shift, commissioners last year also rejected a domestic partnership registry for unwed couples.

Previous votes touching on gay rights issues have brought droves to commission meetings, and prompted heated debates. More than 2,000 people attended the 1991 vote, according to news reports, and guns and knives were confiscated from the crowd.

Banning discrimination against homosexuals is a much less controversial idea in 2014 than it was in 1991, though. Commissioner Miller wondered whether the discussion among his peers next Wednesday will reflect the larger cultural shift that has happened in recent years.

"Who knows. It is an election year," Miller said. "I'm hoping and praying that the county commission's mind-set has changed."

Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com. Follow @TheWillHobson.

Hillsborough commission to consider barring discrimination against gays, transgenders 07/10/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2014 11:29pm]
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