Voters to decide on gay-rights ordinance


Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 11:29 p.m.

MIAMI - Supporters and opponents of gay rights around the country will keep a close watch on Miami-Dade County in the coming days. On Sept. 10, voters in this county - considered both a gay sanctuary and the epicenter of the modern anti-gay movement - will decide whether to scrap a law that protects gays and lesbians from discrimination.

Similar ballot initiatives face Michigan and Washington voters, and referendums are poised to challenge gay-rights laws elsewhere. For example, efforts to repeal existing gay-rights laws are under way in Westbrook, Maine, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio, though they haven't yet reached the ballot.

"It's important that we beat back these repeal attempts," said Seth Kilbourn of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. "All we're asking for is to be treated equally."

"If we begin drawing lines about the degrees of discrimination that are acceptable, then we've lost our fight for civil rights," said Julie Anderson of Tacoma United for Fairness. The group opposes an effort to repeal that Washington city's anti-gay discrimination law.

But Matt Dupree, director of the Florida Christian Coalition, said members of coalition chapters nationwide are behind efforts to defeat gay-rights ordinances, seeing them as an affront to their beliefs.

Gay rights "is not something they can get behind," Dupree said. "But Christianity has always had its little stumbling blocks that we'll overcome."

Friends and foes of gay rights have battled in Miami-Dade for 25 years.

In 1977, the county was among the first to amend its human-rights ordinance to protect residents against discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and finance.

That same year, former beauty queen and orange-juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant led a campaign to quash the law, convincing voters to strike it from the books.

It was reinstated in 1998 at the end of a decade that saw the passage of gay-rights ordinances in cities across the country, but months of campaigning by Christian Coalition volunteers and others have landed the issue on the ballot once again.

Their campaign was marred but not derailed by the arrests of Anthony Verdugo, head of the county's Christian Coalition chapter, and other volunteers for allegedly turning in falsely certified signatures.

Advocates of gay-rights laws say their opponents often use such tactics, but they predict Miami-Dade voters will uphold the anti-discrimination law.

"When you put the question to American voters - 'Do you think it's OK to discriminate against gays?' - they say 'No,' " Kilbourn said.

But Kilbourn said he does not take for granted the strides made by gay-rights groups, noting such discrimination legal in much of Florida and elsewhere. Gays are not protected by the U.S. Civil Rights Act, and Florida is one of 38 states that does not have a statewide law banning anti-gay discrimination.

Since the 1998 ordinance was adopted, Miami-Dade's Equal Opportunity Board has received nearly 70 charges of anti-gay discrimination.

Alexandra Rodil of Miami filed a complaint in 2000 when she was fired from her job at a real-estate firm two days after her employer learned she's a lesbian.

Rodil said she'd told him about her planned appearance in a documentary featuring Miami's gay community and asked if she could be filmed at work. Two days later she was fired.

Rodil said verbal evaluations of her work had been favorable throughout her four months with the firm.

Her employer, Clifford Rosen, told the board Rodil had been reprimanded for playing music on the job and having an "I don't care" attitude, but Rodil said neither Rosen nor her immediate supervisor ever approached her with such complaints.

"The person they described I was would not have lasted a day at that firm," she said. "They're not the kind of people to let things slide."

The board sided with Rodil, who reached a financial settlement with Rosen.

"This is not about special rights, this is about equality," Rodil said. "Am I not the kind of person who deserves a job? I'm a law-abiding citizen who cares about my community."

Georg Ketelhohn, co-chair of the No to Discrimination/Save Dade campaign, said the effects of the ordinance vote will ripple through the entire country.

"This is not just about the gay community, it's about the whole community," Ketelhohn said. "We're a world-class city and we can't allow a small minority painting us as a community that favors discrimination."

Eighteen of the county's 21 mayors, including Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, have come out in support of the ordinance.

In addition, the county's business community has pledged its support. BellSouth and Carnival Cruise Lines, among others, have donated tens of thousands of dollars to support the ordinance.

And officials from the Democratic National Committee have warned that ordinance's repeal could derail Miami's chances of being selected to host the party's 2004 national convention.

But opponents of the gay rights ordinance say homosexuals aren't seeking equal rights, but special treatment. They say businesses and politicians backing the ordinance are interested only in money and power, not morals.

Rosa Armesto de Gonzalez, a Miami attorney, said gays have not proven a need for special protection as have blacks and others protected by civil rights laws.

"Everything they've asked for, they're given," de Gonzalez said.

"I wouldn't want any group to get special treatment over anybody else," said Dupree of the Florida Christian Coalition. "There's no ordinance protecting people with three nostrils."

Dupree further said that while coalition members do not advocate discrimination, they believe gay lifestyles deviate against Christianity.

"In a perfect world, we'd like to see no homosexuality," Dupree said.

But gay-rights campaigners are not fazed by Dupree's statements.

"We don't call discrimination against African Americans 'special,"' said Jubi Headley of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

"People's livelihoods and safety are at stake," Headley said. "No one will say it's not a difficult fight, but we expect to win."

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