County considers protection based on sexual orientation


Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 8:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 8:43 p.m.

Alachua County may soon join Gainesville in protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, almost 20 years after voters removed sexual orientation from what's protected in the county's human rights ordinance.

The county prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on several characteristics including race, religion, gender, age and disability, but not sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the city of Gainesville does forbid such discrimination.

So someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can't be fired from their job or ejected by a landlord for that reason within the Gainesville city limits but could receive such treatment in unincorporated Alachua County, said Terry Fleming, vice president of the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida.

"Many folks don't know that those protections don't exist outside the city of Gainesville," he said.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people need these protections in the unincorporated county as well as within Gainesville, he said, because they face a higher level of discrimination than many others do.

If the County Commission approves the amendment, it would be the second time the county has prohibited discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation.

In 1993, the county added sexual orientation to the list of characteristics for which no one can be discriminated against in its human rights ordinance.

The following year, however, voters approved a referendum removing it from the ordinance and a charter amendment banning the county from adopting ordinances prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the future. A court ruling later overturned the ban.

"It's become an understood need in our society to protect everyone from discrimination," Fleming said. "Twenty years have passed and things have changed."

Staff members are drafting an amendment to the human rights ordinance for the County Commission's consideration that would protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations, said Jacqueline Chung, equal opportunity manager of the county's Equal Opportunity Office.

"We just never have and we're doing it now," she said of reinserting the protection for sexual orientation into the ordinance.

The county's Human Rights Board, which is an advisory board comprised of local residents, is also considering the issue and, along with staff, reviewing the language in relevant Gainesville and Leon County ordinances.

Chung said the county may adopt similar language in its code.

The county's plan to amend the human rights ordinance has been postponed by its efforts to create a wage-theft ordinance that would allow it to mediate between workers and employers in disputes over unpaid wages.

Chung hopes to present an initial draft of the amendment to the County Commission in June. Alachua County's human rights ordinance applies only to unincorporated areas. But the commission could choose to apply it countywide and allow cities to opt out of it if they wish, she said.

Commissioner Susan Baird questioned the need for the amendment, saying it should be clear that people aren't allowed to discriminate against others for any reason.

"What part of ‘You can't discriminate' is hard to accept?" she said.

Florida doesn't have an employment non-discrimination law that covers sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the website of the Movement Advancement Project, an independent think tank that provides research on LGBT equality issues. Federal law prohibits discrimination against people who are transgender or gender non-conforming.

Florida also doesn't have an anti-discrimination law on housing that protects LGBT people, according to the Movement Advancement Project.

According to the Human Rights Campaign's website, there isn't a federal law that provides consistent protection against employment discrimination for LGBT people.

Just like the wage-theft issue that has postponed the county's work on the human-rights amendment, Baird said adding laws atop laws will do less to solve the problem than improving the economy will.

She wishes the commission would have more conversations about improving the economy rather than enacting or amending more ordinances.

"I want to go for the big-ticket items that are going to effect the most people," she said.

The stronger and more competitive the economy gets, the less people will need to worry about facing job discrimination because they're gay or transgender, she said. Employers who want the best workers won't care about that, she added.

"I don't care who they sleep with at night. I don't care what they do in their off hours," Baird said of hiring employees.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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