The Florida Commission on Human Rights has ruled that a male jail guard who was fired for dressing like a woman was the target of discrimination based on a disability _ transsexualism.
The board ruled 8-1 Thursday that Belinda Smith, formerly Lt. William Smith, was the victim of handicap discrimination and shouldn't have been fired by the Jacksonville sheriff's office in 1985.
"Transsexualism is a recognized disorder and, in my opinion . . . we have to find it's a handicap," said Judith Kavanaugh, one of the commissioners.
The 43-year-old Smith was a 14-year veteran of the department. He was fired after being seen off the job in women's clothing and outlining plans to undergo a sex-change operation, with the prerequisite of dressing as a woman for two years before surgery.
Since then, Smith has had the operation.
"This is excellent. This is as strong a ruling as we could have gotten in our favor," Smith said.
Sam Jacobson, Smith's lawyer, said the ruling breaks new ground.
"Under a handicap law, this is the first one. I think it's a case that is going to make the world a more comfortable place for people with this trait," he said.
Transsexuals have been granted protections in Washington state as well.
Jacobson and several of the commissioners said Thursday's ruling will amplify Florida's Human Rights Act of 1977. It prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, religion or handicap. The act has never before been used to address transsexualism.
"It's just extending some coverage heretofore denied some individuals born in the wrong body," said Commissioner Bob Joyce.
Chairman Willy Bermello cautioned that, although the case sets a precedent, legislation pending in the Florida House could prevent another such decision. The bill proposes adopting language in the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act, which specifically excludes transsexualism.