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Dunedin deserves praise for ordinance to protect gay, transgender people, but it falls short

Without a peep of protest from the community, the Dunedin City Commission has approved an ordinance to protect gay and transgender individuals from some forms of discrimination. Dunedin's effort is commendable and the protections are needed, but city officials should make sure they understand the limitations of their ordinance and some potential problems with its implementation.

The city's current antidiscrimination ordinance bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, sex or national origin in "places of public accommodation, resort or amusement" in the city — hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, public shelters, entertainment venues and public halls, for the most part.

Thursday night, Dunedin commissioners voted to add a ban on discrimination based on "gender identity or expression or sexual orientation." The wording is designed to protect people who are gay, transgender, transsexual or cross-dressers from being victimized by discrimination in places of public accommodation. Gulfport is the only other local government in Pinellas that has had the courage to ban discrimination against all of those individuals.

Dunedin officials should feel good about their decision and about their community's openness to all individuals. However, their ordinance does fall short in some areas.

The ordinance bans discrimination only in public accommodations, not in employment and housing — areas in which gay and transgender individuals say they frequently encounter discrimination. It has appeared from previous commission discussion that some Dunedin officials believe federal, state and county laws already ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in the areas of housing and employment. They do not.

There is no indication that any of those levels of government will offer protections to all of those individuals in the foreseeable future. Federal housing laws do not ban discrimination in housing based on a person's sexual identity or the way they express it. Pinellas County commissioners voted against including transgender individuals in a county antidiscrimination ordinance approved last year.

Dunedin's new ordinance will not prevent employers and landlords in the city from rejecting individuals as tenants or employees just because they might be gay or transgender.

Dunedin officials apparently chose to avoid banning discrimination in employment and housing for two reasons: Their current ordinance does not ban discrimination in those two areas for other groups, and they feared that setting up a system to handle complaints of discrimination in employment and housing would be too expensive.

In fact, to limit the cost of enforcing the new public accommodations rules, the city plans to use city code enforcement officers and the volunteer city Code Enforcement Board to address complaints of discrimination.

Code enforcement officers and the code board typically deal with issues such as whether a property owner's grass has gotten too long, whether a backyard shed is too close to the property line or whether a business sign violates the city code.

Investigating and ruling on discrimination issues requires a different skill set — especially when dealing with allegations of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. It is more typical for local governments that have antidiscrimination ordinances to use specially trained investigators and rely on the state's Division of Administrative Hearings to provide judges to hear cases. Dunedin officials would be wise to consult with Pinellas County's Office of Human Rights or officials with other cities that ban discrimination in public accommodations to find out how they handle investigations and hearings.

It is important to note that Dunedin managed to approve these additional protections without the controversy, recriminations and public protests that accompanied Largo's 2003 attempt to pass an antidiscrimination ordinance. Dunedin has long been known as an open-minded, inclusive community. In attempting to protect more individuals from becoming victims of discrimination, it is living up to its reputation.

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Dunedin deserves praise for ordinance to protect gay, transgender people, but it falls short 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 4:31am]
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