Paul Valenti, director of Pinellas County Human Rights Office, answers questions about an amendment to the human rights code that adds protection from discrimination for gender identity during an Aug. 20 public hearing.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Commissioner Norm Roche, the only one to vote against the amendment to the human rights code, talks about the reasons for his decision Aug. 20.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Katee Tully, Equality Florida board member and member of the St. Petersburg Chamber, tells commissioners Aug. 20 why passing the amendment to the human rights ordinance is the right thing to do.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Regina Brown, speaking for herself and four others Aug. 20, explains why adding protections for gender identity to the county’s human rights code is a mistake.
CLEARWATER - Despite a wall of opposition, the Pinellas County Commission added protection from discrimination for gender identity Aug. 20 via an amendment to its Human Rights code.
Commissioners listened to those for and against the amendment for nearly three hours before discussing the matter amongst themselves. In the end, the vote was 6-1 to approve. Commissioner Norm Roche voted no.
Chapter 70 of Pinellas County’s codes relating to human relations gives protection against discrimination for race, color, religion, national origin, marital status, familial status, pregnancy, gender, sexual orientation, sexual harassment, age, disability and now gender identity as well.
The county’s Office of Human Rights is responsible to protect all citizens from discrimination in the areas of fair housing, employment, public accommodations and government programs and assistance. The amendment prohibiting discrimination due to gender identity and gender expression applies in three of those areas: fair housing, employment and public accommodations.
Paul Valenti, director of the Human Rights Office, said 17 states have already passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s gender identify. Florida is not one of those states; however, several of its counties and municipalities have such protections, including Gulfport and Dunedin in Pinellas County. Legislation is pending in the U.S. Senate.
Roche made it clear that he was not voting against the amendment because he did not believe discrimination should be prohibited. He is unhappy with changes to the ordinance that redefine gender. He prefers providing the protections using different words.
Supporters of the amendment were given first chance at the podium to tell commissioners why they should approve it. Susan McGrath, president of the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County, and other members of that organization, pointed to a missed opportunity in 2008 when the commission voted against adding protection for gender identity to the human rights code.
“We support the T’s (transgendered) in our community and applaud your efforts today,” she said.
She said approving the amendment would create “greater equality and inclusiveness.”
Katee Tully, Equality Florida board member and member of the St. Petersburg Chamber, said both organizations supported the amendment, which she called an “appropriate right for everyone.”
Andrew Santino, a transgendered man, and his wife Sasha, who are business owners in St. Petersburg, also asked for the commissions’ support to stop discrimination “because people don’t fit.”
“Not all can accept people who look different,” he said.
He said people who identify with a gender other than the one they were born become homeless and unemployed simply because of who they are.
His wife told commissioners that before she met her husband she didn’t even know what transgendered was. She talked about “rights for human beings.”
“It’s disturbing that people are discriminated against for what they are and that they don’t fit,” she said.
Several women talked about being bullied and being pushed out of restrooms because they don’t like to wear dresses and high heels. The underlying theme was a desire to be protected from discrimination.
Those opposing the amendment outnumbered supporters about two to one, and they were far more vocal. One woman traveled from Tampa to speak against the change.
They objected to exemptions in the law for religious organizations and the school district. They objected because the amendment would give protections not available under state or federal law. They objected to the code’s definition of gender, saying it was different from the one found in the dictionary or medical books.
Some cited Biblical scripture. Local pastors tried to persuade commissioners to vote no. People said it was wrong to change the gender a person is born with, as that was strictly an act of God. They said a person’s gender should be decided by fact not feelings. A few said gender identity was a mental disorder.
Others warned that the amendment would open the door to lawsuits with more than one person saying it would open Pandora’s Box. They said businesses would leave the county due to fear of lawsuits. Some said creating protection for a small sub-class of people created more victims.
Regina Brown, speaking for herself and four others, talked about reverse discrimination and the hate she has been shown due to her opposition. Brown said she has been called names because she opposes same-sex marriage. She pointed out that just because she opposes the amendment doesn’t mean she approves of discrimination.
Brown is against more government regulation. She said government should not step in to protect people who are unhappy with their assigned sex.
“I used to be so skinny and people made fun of me,” she said. “Are you going to put in your ordinance that people can’t call me skinny and point at me and make me cry?”
However, the most pressing concern of most of the objectors was about the restroom.
“I don’t want a man who because of his gender identity has become a female to use the same restroom that I do,” said Dorothy Bonds of Palm Harbor.
Several objectors talked about voyeurism and sexual abuse. Nancy Davis said she didn’t want to go to the shower in the gym and find it occupied by men and women.
“I’m very concerned,” she said. “I have certain values.”
She said she had a right to her privacy.
Others talked about the danger to young children who might encounter a pedophile posing as a transgendered person. They were afraid providing protections for people expressing themselves as a different gender would be confusing to children and cause problems.
Several people said the amendment would not be needed at all if people would just be kind to one another. They pointed out that the commission could not require people to be kind to each other.
“You can’t legislate against discrimination,” said Rex Brown of Largo. “I was taught to love everyone and I think you should.”
Commissioner Charlie Justice made the motion for approval as soon as the public was done speaking. He said while he “understood and empathized” with the speakers, it was possible to legislate against discrimination, although it was not possible “to legislate what is in people’s hearts and minds.”
“But we can set a policy to not discriminate against a group of people whether it is 2 percent, 20 percent or 40 percent.”
He referred to statements by the public to the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He said many had talked about faith, which is what he uses as his moral compass. He said his faith was the “rock I am standing upon to vote in favor of this tonight.”
In an interview after the meeting, Valenti clarified which public restrooms would be covered under the definition of public accommodation, including public lodging, motels and hotels; restaurants, eateries, places where food is sold and ate on premises; businesses where drinks – alcoholic and nonalcoholic -are sold and consumed on premises. In addition, the law applies to establishments that sell goods and services; clinics and hospitals; bathhouses and swimming pools; entertainment and sports venues; all public places on land or water – essentially most places of public business.
A complete list is provided in the code. The amendment does not apply to private clubs.
Valenti said the amendment in no way changes the law to allow improper behavior in public restrooms, including touching or display of genitalia, which was a fear of a few of the female speakers at the Aug. 20 meeting.
Commissioner Janet Long received several emails asking her how as a parent she could support the amendment.
“I have children and grandchildren,” Long said. “It is not good public policy to make decisions based on fear.”
She said she too uses her faith as a moral compass to make decisions.
“I’m very proud to support this ordinance tonight,” Long said.
“I’ve labored over this beyond,” Roche said. “I’ve talked to people all over this county.”
In the end, he voted against the amendment due to the way the language was changed in the ordinance.
“I believe people who are transgendered should not be discriminated against and those who do that should be punished swiftly and publicly,” he said. … “I don’t have the authority to give or take away a right. It is not our role to redefine a word.”
He preferred leaving the ordinance as it was and adding the term transgender with a definition. He said just as same-sex marriage, gender identity rights was a state and federal issue that should be not be decided on by local jurisdictions.
Commission Chair Ken Welch said it was within the commission’s responsibility to protect the minority and to protect all people, including the gay and lesbian people in the community.
“Other places have this and there have been nightmare scenarios,” he said.
“Change is never easy,” said Commissioner John Morroni.
He talked about the changes made in the county over the past 100 years.
“Blacks were kept out of the bathrooms. We had black and white restrooms,” he said. “Not long ago, women weren't allowed to vote, but now they can. The seven of us think a lot about how we vote. It affects us. We want to listen to you, then make our decisions. But we may not always agree.”
Commissioner Karen Seel said it would be nice if we could all live by the Golden Rule, “treat others as we wish to be treated.”
“People tonight said, ‘be nice and kind to each other,’ we can’t legislate that,” she said. “This is trying to cover all human beings in the county. Many of our lives are dictated by the circumstances of our birth.”
She said people most likely would continue to use the restroom of their choice, as they do today. She said the amendment could help promote more use of unisex restrooms.
“Pass on the Golden Rule. Live it every day,” Seel said.