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Hillsborough enacts workplace protections for gay, transgender people

TAMPA — In 1991, Hillsborough County commissioners barred discrimination against gay people in a vote considered ahead of its time. Four years later, they repealed the measure, setting the tone for nearly two decades of actions that earned Hillsborough commissioners a reputation for staunch social conservatism.

That era ended Wednesday when the commission again reversed course on gay rights, this time by unanimously approving an expanded human rights ordinance that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in hiring, housing and public accommodations.

Commissioners also unanimously voted to set a public hearing for their Oct. 15 meeting on a proposed domestic partnership registry. It would ensure rights associated with marriage for unmarried couples, straight and gay.

No commissioners voiced opposition. Last year, four of the seven were opposed.

"There's been a cultural and political shift. I think people are beginning to realize the importance of making sure everyone is treated equally and fairly," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who is gay and has pushed both the human rights ordinance and the registry.

Beckner said the involvement of the local business community was vital to helping prod changed stances on a board that once voted to ban any county recognition of gay pride events.

Perhaps just as remarkable was the public reaction to these votes.

In 1991, more than 2,000 people attended the vote on the human rights ordinance, and guns and knives were confiscated. Wednesday, there were about 20 people in attendance. Six spoke before the vote: four in favor, two opposed. There were no raised voices or heated moments.

"I have faced discrimination eyeball to eyeball," said Commissioner Les Miller, who recounted his experiences growing up in segregated Tampa. "No one should face discrimination, regardless of who they may be."

The ordinance, which went into effect immediately, also prohibits discrimination in credit extension and county contracting and procuring. The process for rectifying an incident of discrimination depends on the specifics. Anyone living in unincorporated Hillsborough County who feels they are the victim of a type of discrimination covered by the ordinance can contact the Equal Opportunity Administrator's Office at (813) 272-6554 for information.

Gary Sasso, president of the Carlton Fields Jorden Burt law firm, praised the vote, telling commissioners it was important to the business community.

"Your action on this matter will have a profound impact on the business climate in Hillsborough County," Sasso said.

Earlier Wednesday, Beckner led a presentation on Hillsborough's proposed domestic partnership registry, which this same commission rejected last year. Republican Commissioners Al Higginbotham, Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman and Victor Crist all reversed their votes on the registry, though Wednesday's action just set a public hearing. It did not actually approve the registry.

Hillsborough's registry (official name: Hillsborough Health, Education and Life Planning Ordinance and Advanced Directives and Domestic Partnership Registry) would basically expand the city of Tampa's registry into the unincorporated county.

As in Tampa, the registry would afford qualifying unmarried couples — both gay and straight — the rights to such things as hospital visits and end-of-life decision-making.

If commissioners approve the measure Oct. 15, it will take about 90 days until Hillsborough is ready to start registering couples, County Attorney Chip Fletcher said.

Contact Will Hobson at whobson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.

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