TAMPA — Men who live as women, women living as men, clergy members, mothers and grandparents packed the Tampa City Council chambers Thursday to debate a new ordinance that would protect transgender people from discrimination.
Some argued that it's good business policy and simply the right thing to do. Others invoked religion and contended that the rules would give a stamp of approval to sexual deviants who might prey on children.
Donna Kuntz read Bible passages about God abandoning people who do "shameful things" and said sexual predators are probably celebrating.
"You're giving credibility and recognition to a behavior that is sinful," she said.
After two hours of testimony, the ordinance passed by a 5-1 vote with Charlie Miranda voting no and Linda Saul-Sena absent.
Miranda repeatedly raised concerns about disruptions caused by people who come to work one day dressed as one gender, and the next day as the other.
The new rules prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on "gender identity and expression," with that defined as someone who has an "inner sense of being a specific gender" regardless of their "assigned sex at birth."
Tampa's human rights ordinance already protects people from discrimination based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and other factors.
Council chairman Tom Scott delivered a riveting speech before the vote, saying he didn't take the decision lightly.
"I did not sleep well last night. I spent most of my time as a Christian praying and seeking wisdom and direction on this particular ordinance," said Scott, who is pastor of 34th Street Church of God.
Scott, who is running for mayor in 2011, said he wasn't intimidated by those who threatened not to vote for him if he supported the ordinance.
"The only vote I care about is God's vote," he said, noting that as a county commissioner he voted against gay issues.
But the United States, he said, is founded on the principles of freedom and choice.
And as a preacher, he asked himself, "What would Jesus do?"
"I believe that Jesus loves every person in this room," he said. "I am a Christian. I am a pastor. I am a disciple of the man whom they call the friend to sinners."
Ultimately, he said, the ordinance is about protecting people from discrimination.
Council members Mary Mulhern and John Dingfelder referred to the Constitution.
"We're not in church. This is your Tampa City Council and we're legislators," Mulhern said. "When I look at my responsibility here, it does have to do with, as one of the speakers said, liberty and justice for all."
The council decided to broaden its human rights ordinance to include gender identity at the request of the city's Human Rights Board.
"The bottom line is discrimination is wrong, and history has proven that expanding the civil rights of our citizens is the right thing to do," said Philip Dinkins, the board's chairman.
He noted that Tampa isn't blazing any new trails on the issue because cities, states and companies across the country include gender identity in their antidiscrimination policies.
When the council preliminarily approved the ordinance by a 7-0 vote on Nov. 5, there was little discussion. A handful of people spoke on the issue, and all of them favored the change.
But the scene was vastly different for the final hearing.
At least 50 people lined up to speak, and they were split almost equally on the issue.
David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association, said protection under the human rights ordinance should be based on a pattern of discrimination that causes economic hardship.
"This is all about politics," Caton said. "It has nothing to do with real discrimination complaints."
Others, though, talked about the importance of all people being able to work and live without worry of discrimination, and said transgender people are not perverts or child molesters.
Rocco Vallerand, who also goes by the name Raquel, said he works in the Pasco County school system and has no desire to harm any children. He simply wants to be able to maintain a job to support his two daughters.
"I am saddened that people are using religion as a guise for hate," he said.
Tobias Packer, a member of Equality Florida who lives in Miami, told the council he is a transgender person and has been denied jobs even though he has an Ivy League education.
He referenced the thousands of e-mails and letters council members received from people who oppose the ordinance.
"They hope to inspire fear and confusion, but I really ask that you simply look at the facts and the legal realities of this measure," he said.
Stephanie Nichols, who was born male but now lives as a female, said she may not be the cookie-cutter image of a man or woman.
"But nobody's perfect," she said. She said she knows at least 15 people who have lost their jobs as they made the transition from one gender to the other.
"Passing this amendment is fair," she said. "It's the right thing to do."
Tampa's ordinance applies to organizations throughout the city. Among other things, the law makes it illegal to fire someone, refuse to hire them or decline to sell or rent them a home based on their gender identity. The ordinance provisions relating to sexual orientation and gender identity do not apply to religious organizations.
The ordinance also specifies that it's legal to segregate bathrooms based on sex, which is defined as a person's reproductive organs.
Violating the ordinance can result in lawsuits and financial penalties.
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.