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Equal rights measure debated

City Council member James Bennett on Tuesday proposed banning discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals in employment, housing and public accommodations.

But the lobbying group that first asked the city to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation said that is not enough.

Equality Florida spokespersons said any new protection must include men who dress as women, women who feel at heart that they are men, effeminate men, masculine women and anyone else who doesn't fit the traditions associated with their biological gender.

"Really, the gender identity language covers all of us," said Nadine Smith, executive director of the Tampa-based group that raised the issue this spring. "It is actually rare that someone gets fired due to their known, confirmed, sexual orientation. They get fired for not conforming to gender stereotypes."

That was just one point of debate Tuesday as the St. Petersburg City Council held its first public discussion over whether to amend the city Human Rights Ordinance to protect people from discrimination because of sexual orientation. More than 70 people, many wearing rainbow flag stickers, filled the council chamber to listen.

The city already bans discrimination based on religion, national origin, disability, race and gender. Those "protected classes" are also recognized under Florida and federal law, which do not ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Some cities, counties and states have extended protection to sexual orientation. Because the city's Community Affairs Office would have to investigate discrimination, the Bennett draft of the ordinance would exempt the city from new requirements that preclude the city from investigating itself.

Bennett told Smith that his narrower definition of sexual orientation has the best chance of becoming law.

"Let's crawl before we walk," he said. "Let's get something started; let's have progress. Life is a compromise, and my version is a compromise, and I'm hoping the rest of the council might see it as a compromise."

The council could take no action Tuesday at its informal discussion, and it remained unclear whether Bennett's version could get enough votes. Only four council members seemed to support it Tuesday. One, Bill Foster, opposed it.

"I am for individual freedom to live however one chooses," Foster said. "But I will never support an ordinance that singles out a way of life for special protection."

Like gays, short people, fat people and people with tattoos or body piercings may all be turned down for a job or apartment, Foster said, but the city should stick to protecting the same groups that federal and state laws do. Otherwise, he said, there may be no end to the list of groups it is asked to protect.

Council member John Bryan wondered whether the council should put the matter to voters in a referendum.

Chairwoman Rene Flowers likes the broad protections proposed by Equality Florida but said she might vote against Bennett's measure. She said it does not go far enough and that similar language has been challenged in court in Kentucky.

Even if Bennett's version got the five votes it needed to pass, Mayor Rick Baker might veto it. Baker opposes adding any protection for sexual orientation to the law. He was absent Tuesday.

Smith and Equality Florida member Brian Longstreth said banning sexual orientation discrimination would economically benefit the city.

"People are looking for the next great place for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people," said Longstreth, a real estate agent in the city. "St. Pete could be that next great place."

Smith and Longstreth asserted that the ordinance is badly needed because of the significant number of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in St. Petersburg.

A 1992 national study of American sexuality by the National Opinion Research Center found that 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women identified themselves as homosexual or bisexual, though the numbers who had had same-sex experiences or same-sex attractions were higher.

The study did find that homosexuals cluster in large cities, and that a figure of 10 percent could be accurate in a place such as New York or San Francisco.

Definitions

The St. Petersburg City Council is debating whether to outlaw discrimination based on "sexual orientation." But what does that term mean?

A lobbying group called Equality Florida wants the council to use this definition:

Having or being perceived as having an emotional, physical, or sexual attachment to another person without regard to the sex of that person or having or being perceived as having an orientation for such attachment, or having or being perceived as having a self-image or identity not traditionally associated with one's biological maleness or femaleness.

Council member James Bennett supports this narrower definition:

An individual's actual or imputed heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality. This definition is not intended to permit any practice prohibited by federal, state or local law.

The following are definitions used by Florida governments that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation:

KEY WEST: The actual or perceived state of heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality.

MIAMI BEACH: The condition of being heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.

PALM BEACH COUNTY: Male or female homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality, by preference or practice.

GAINESVILLE AND TAMPA: The condition of being heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual or having a history of such identification. This definition is not intended to permit any practice prohibited by state or local law.

BROWARD COUNTY: The condition of being heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual, or the perception that an individual is heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual or the perception that an individual is associated with individuals who maintain such orientation.

WEST PALM BEACH: The state of being heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, or having a history of such identification.

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY: Heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality whether such orientation is real or perceived.

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