Hillsborough County should act this week to end a shameful history of discrimination. County commissioners on Wednesday will consider whether to adopt a proposal banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Striking a note for tolerance and equality would go a long way toward signaling that Hillsborough has become a more tolerant community and make the county a more appealing place to live, work and visit.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner will ask his colleagues to support a motion calling on the county attorney to draft an amendment to the county's human rights laws that would prohibit bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Gays and people who identify with a gender other than the one they were born with would have protections against discrimination in housing, jobs, public accommodations and county contracting.
The measure would mirror similar ordinances already in place in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, and Hillsborough would join nearly 200 cities and counties that bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While state and federal antidiscrimination laws already exist, local ordinances have helped to plug the gaps by creating practical tools for enforcing these statutes and by making the public more aware so that some disputes can be avoided altogether. This is an area where local government can make a real difference in the everyday lives of residents.
Beckner's proposal should be a rallying point for a county with an embarrassing history on civil rights. The commission repealed local protections for gays in the 1990s, setting the stage for votes in 2005 that banned the county from recognizing gay pride events. It was a low point for the commission and a gratuitous slap that showed the disconnect between a government and its people.
Thanks to pressure from civic and business groups, the board overturned the gay pride ban last year. The move recognized that discrimination was as bad for business and the county's image as it was morally indefensible. Commissioners also appeared intent to move beyond social issues in the aftermath of the recession.
There's no reason in 2014 why this change should not happen. The ordinance would not give gays or transgender people extra protections — but rather, merely work to guarantee that they are treated equally with others. The move would send a message that Hillsborough's political leaders have evolved, and it would open a new chapter on civil rights for a county that has ground to make up. The board should follow Beckner's lead and join communities across the nation in declaring that all are equal under the law.