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County sets public hearing on gender identity protections
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PCCTV screen shot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County’s Human Rights Director Paul Valenti explains a proposed amendment to the human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners will consider amending its human rights ordinance to protect gender identity during a public hearing on Aug. 20.

The amendment would prohibit gender identity discrimination under Chapter 70 of county code relating to human relations that prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and places of public accommodation, Human Rights director Paul Valenti, said during a commission meeting Aug. 6.

Jurisdictions throughout Florida, as well as 17 states, have taken steps to stop discrimination stemming from a person’s gender identity. In addition, legislation providing for those protections is pending in the U.S. Senate. Pinellas County leaders are evaluating the need in the local community.

Valenti said the county’s code currently prohibits discrimination based on one’s sex. He recommends striking references to sex and replacing it with gender. County code would define gender as including but not limited to sex, pregnancy, childbirth or medical conditions relating to pregnancy, gender-related self-identity, self-image, appearance, expression or behavior, whether or not such gender-related characteristics differ from those associated with the individual’s assigned sex or physiology at birth.

The code exempts religious corporations, associations and societies and religious educational institutions in the areas of employment and places of public accommodation. The code also would not apply to the school district as an employer.

Under the ordinance, persons who identify with a sex different from their physiology, or their sex at birth, would be permitted to use restroom and other facilities of the gender with which they identify. If there are objections, every effort should be taken to ensure fair, non-discriminatory use of the facility for all people.

Businesses can still maintain dress codes, Valenti said, as long as they allow individuals to dress in a style that best fits their gender identity.

Commissioner Karen Seel, who along with Commissioner John Morroni voted against a similar amendment in 2008, asked if other jurisdictions had found it difficult to apply discrimination laws. Valenti said they had not.

“There was no nightmare scenario or apoplectic issue that came to fruition,” he said.

She also asked if there had been problems with single-sex facilities. Valenti said there had been no “widespread issues.” He added that improper conduct could happen regardless of sex, race or religion. He said the amendment did not require adding separate facilities for transgendered persons. He said no one would have to install a third set of restrooms.

Todd Richardson with Equality Florida told commissioners that the amendment would be a very important addition for Pinellas County, making it more attractive for employers and employees.

“It adds protection for all people,” he said, “Protection no matter who they are.”

Michael Keefe, executive director of Trans*Action Florida, thanked the commission for moving forward with a “courageous conversation.”

Only former sheriff’s candidate Greg Pound spoke against the amendment, accusing the commission of doing “evil.”

Commission Chair Ken Welch said it was time for the “fear mongering” to stop.

“Forty years ago it was black people in restrooms … No more fear mongering. I’m so over that,” he said.

Commissioner Norm Roche said he support scheduling a public hearing on the matter, but he didn’t voice support for the amendment.

“I’m not into creating laws that make attorneys money … The way this country is going we’re going to be back here adding political parties.”

Public hearings start at 6 p.m. in the fifth floor Assembly Room of the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.
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