Tampa, Hillsborough County sexual discrimination policies illustrate political divide

TAMPA — Anyone seeking evidence of the deep social divide between the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County need look no further than the City Council's vote Thursday to expand its human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination against transgendered people.

The policy applies to organizations throughout the city.

Compare that to the Hillsborough County Commission's discussion last month of its internal discrimination policies.

When Commissioner Kevin Beckner, the board's only openly gay member, suggested it should specify protections for people based on sexual orientation, he hit a brick wall.

Commissioner Jim Norman accused Beckner of trying to make an end-run around the countywide human rights ordinance, which protected gays until 1995 when that provision was removed, with Norman voting to yank it.

Why the disconnect?

"The people who live in the more rural, less densely populated areas tend to be more conservative in their views," said April Schiff, a Republican political consultant.

The makeup of the two boards seems to demonstrate that. Six of the seven Tampa City Council members are Democrats. Only two Democrats sit on the seven-member County Commission.

That's the case even though Tampa does not have a great deal more registered Democrats than the county as a whole.

About 50 percent of the city's registered voters are Democrats. Countywide, the figure is 43 percent. And the county commissioners who object to giving legal protection from bias to homosexuals know who their voters are.

"You elect them to make decisions for you, and they make decisions with the belief that they're representing the will of their constituents," Schiff said.

Council Chairman Tom Scott, when he was a Hillsborough County commissioner, voted in 2005 to ban county sponsorship of gay pride events.

But Thursday, Scott, a pastor who is running for mayor of Tampa, voted to expand protections to people based on "gender identity and expression."

He said Friday the seemingly contradictory votes have nothing to do with politics.

"Discrimination is a much more serious issue in my mind than supporting homosexual parades or advertisement with taxpayer dollars," Scott said.

Gay people as well as people who feel compelled to live their lives different from the gender they were born with should be treated the same as everyone else, Scott said, even if he himself doesn't condone the lifestyle.

"They should be allowed the right to have decent housing and go into restaurants without being discriminated against or harassed," he said.

On the other hand, Scott said, the city's Human Rights Board needs to be careful about continuing to add specific groups of people to the ordinance.

"It will become trivialized," Scott said. "What are you going to do next? Add fat folks?"

That's the argument County Commissioner Mark Sharpe made when asked why he opposes specifically naming sexual orientation in the county's internal discrimination policy.

"It's just an unnecessary debate," Sharpe said, noting he would rather spend his time pushing for a sales tax to help pay for transit and other transportation projects. "That's so much more important to me than to add language that I'm not sure is legally necessary."

Sharpe said he would prefer to rely upon federal law to assure citizens of such equity.

Tampa council member John Dingfelder, who was among the 5-1 majority that voted in favor of Tampa's expanded protections, said he doesn't believe the federal law can do that.

"That's why these local laws are so important," said Dingfelder, a commission candidate.

And he doesn't believe that current commissioners were elected to promote a conservative social agenda.

"They just got voted in, and once they got there they spread their wings on those types of issues," he said. "The county inherently is a little bit more conservative than the city. But with that said, I don't think it's that profound. It's about leadership."

Beckner said for him the issue is simply a matter of making sure everyone who works for the county is treated with dignity, and to avoid lawsuits.

Commissioners are developing discrimination guidelines in the wake of a legal challenge brought against Commissioner Kevin White by a former aide. In the ruling against White, the judge rapped the county for not having more clear policies to prevent discrimination.

"We need to be able to say to the community that we've learned our lesson," Beckner said. "Without that, we're leaving ourselves open to more litigation."

Beckner said he has no interest at this time in expanding the county's human rights ordinance to include sexual orientation, understanding that it's a nonstarter with a conservative County Commission.

"They were uncomfortable with even talking about having a comprehensive internal policy," he said. "It's really unfortunate that some of my colleagues are really more interested in protecting politics rather than people."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Tampa, Hillsborough County sexual discrimination policies illustrate political divide 11/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 11:45pm]

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