The Hillsborough County Commission continued on the solid path of progress this week when it passed a human rights ordinance to protect the rights of gays and transgender people. The unanimous vote marked a dramatic shift for a commission that in 1995 reversed an earlier decision to provide such protections. The commission should have stood firm against discrimination long ago, but a step forward is still movement in the right direction even if it was nearly 20 years in the making.
The issue of providing equal protections for people regardless of their sexual orientation took center stage before the commission in 1991. Then, commissioners supported an ordinance that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in hiring, housing and public accommodation. Four years later, the board rolled back those protections and set the stage for decades of backward acts.
This week's unanimous commission vote to expand the county's human rights ordinance showcased a board with a change of heart and a roster that includes Kevin Beckner, the commission's first openly gay member. The decision followed a September vote to agree to draft a domestic partnership registry, another sharp reversal for a board that had just 20 months earlier rejected the idea. The commission plans to hold a public workshop and vote on the registry later in the month.
For years, Hillsborough County stood out as a bastion of intolerance in the bay area where municipalities, including Tampa and St. Petersburg, have been more welcoming and inclusive to gays and transgender people. The commission's shift was a result of changing cultural attitudes and intense pressure from the business community, which long has lobbied that inclusion would make the county more attractive to businesses and new hires.
The commission's recent progressive actions on the domestic partnership registry, which affords rights to all unmarried couples, and expanding protections under its human rights ordinance are commendable. Now, commissioners need to take the next step and vote to accept the domestic partnership registry. They also should watch closely to ensure that the protections afforded through the forthcoming registry and the human rights ordinance are being realized around the county.
More than words on a page, the ordinance and registry must be fully embraced by all. Acknowledgement, acceptance and enforcement of the new policies is the truest reflection of a commission and a community that is committed to diversity.