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Pinellas human rights ordinance has its opponents

Pinellas County is a step closer toward expanding its human rights ordinance to protect gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Yet the effort faces resistance both inside and outside the County Courthouse.

On one hand, some advocates in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community say the proposed ordinance falls short. On the other, David Caton's Florida Family Association has come out against it.

And County Commissioner Karen Seel wants to see whether the state or federal governments pass such protections.

The idea of expanding Pinellas County's human rights law was put in play after last year's controversy over then-Largo City Manager Steve Stanton's plans to undergo a sex-change operation.

But nobody acted until a few months ago, when County Commissioner Susan Latvala decided to bring an ordinance forward.

"People continue to discriminate, and there's a lot of hate in the world," Latvala said. "Everybody needs to be
treated fairly."

Now the potentially explosive issue lands before commissioners during a year when four of them — Karen Seel, Ken Welch, Bob Stewart and Ronnie Duncan — come up for election.

Latvala said she had hoped to get the measure passed months ago, and sees little point in holding off to spare colleagues a vote that, whichever way it's cast, is likely to enrage somebody.

"If we look at that, we don't ever do anything controversial," she said. "Somebody is always running, or getting ready to."

The proposed ordinance would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation — defined as "an individual's actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality" — in employment, housing and public accommodation.

If approved, the ordinance would be binding throughout Pinellas, but municipalities would have the right to opt out.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted to hold a public hearing on the measure April 22. Duncan and County Commissioner Calvin Harris were absent. Of commissioners present, only Seel voted against holding a hearing.

Similar laws are before the U.S. Congress and the state Legislature, and Seel said she would prefer to wait to see if anything binding on Pinellas County is passed before embarking on public hearings at the local level.

That could be awhile, said Karen Doering, an attorney and activist in St. Petersburg. Neither state nor federal measures are likely to be approved soon.

The federal bill faces a presidential veto and is dead in the Senate. The state bills have only Democratic support. Besides, she said, history shows that changes to civil rights law begin locally.

Not far enough

Doering is angered by what she views as the measure's failure to go beyond sexual orientation and bar discrimination based on "gender identity or expression."

That language is a term of legal art meant to include transgender people, like Stanton, who Doering said need legal safeguards the most.

Thirteen states and 100 local governments have laws protecting the transgendered, Doering said, including Palm Beach, Broward and Monroe counties.

"I think it's unconscionable to knowingly write out a group that is most in need of protections because politicians are afraid they may not be re-elected," she said. "That is the definition of political cowardice."

On Wednesday, commissioners Welch and board chairman Bob Stewart said they support Pinellas County's proposed ordinance as it now reads, but are wary of including language aimed at protecting the transgendered.

Welch sees sexual orientation as a largely personal matter, but said the transgendered cross a line between private and public. Would the presence of a transgendered person disrupt an office, Welch asked, and how about assigning them restroom facilities?

'This ... is not needed'

Caton, the executive director of the Florida Family Association, opposes the proposed measure. He's providing members of the commission with a review his group has performed of a similar law in Tampa.

Caton argues that the law has been a disaster, spurring frivolous complaints that have needlessly cost taxpayers and private businesses.

Since the law was enacted in 1991, Caton contends "there has not been one complaint filed that has resulted in a court affirming that a person was actually discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation," according to a letter to commissioners.

"Clearly, this is something that is not needed," Caton said.

Kenneth Perry, Tampa's community affairs manager, said Caton's survey doesn't tell the whole story.

It's true, Perry said, that he knows of only one complaint that made it to court — its disposition unknown — but many cases are settled by other means, such as mediation.

Now the issue has Pinellas commissioners fielding a deluge of e-mails for and against the proposal. Some are waiting until the April hearing to take a stand on the issue.

"I'm not going to say," Seel said. "I don't think I should weigh in on my answer one way or the other until we hear from the public."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.



>>Fast facts

Proposed expansion

Would: Ban discrimination based on sexual orientation — that is, "an individual's actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality" — in employment, housing and public accommodation.

Would not: Protect transgendered people.

Pinellas human rights ordinance has its opponents 03/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 2:01pm]

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