TAMPA — A little over a year ago, Hillsborough County commissioners repealed a ban on county promotions of gay pride events and displays.
The historic vote was seen by Hillsborough’s gay, lesbian and transgender community as a sign the county was ready to reverse a history of discrimination.
The next chapter in that history is set for Wednesday when commissioners will consider asking the county attorney to amend Hillsborough’s human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification.
The protections in the amendment would encompass discrimination in employment, public accommodations, real estate transactions, and county contracting and procurement.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner is sponsoring the amendment, which would reverse a divisive vote in 1995 that excluded homosexuals from the ordinance’s civil rights protections. The vote followed a five-hour public hearing in which gays and lesbians were castigated as sinners and tools of Satan.
Much has changed in the county since then, including the election of Beckner, an openly gay man, to a countywide commission seat in 2008. Four years later, Becker was re-elected in a landslide.
“I think the political winds and the social winds have changed, and I think a lot of it is attributed to individuals, whether through their families or through work, who have come to know gay individuals,” Beckner said Monday. “Through their relationships, they just realize that this is the right thing to do.”
Beckner seems to have the four votes he needs to see the amendment written into the human rights ordinance, based on Tampa Tribune interviews Monday. Republican commissioners Victor Crist and Chairman Mark Sharpe said they would vote with Beckner Wednesday as did Democrat Les Miller.
“Whether you’re conservative or liberal or in favor of any particular lifestyle or community, the bottom line is that in this country, at this time, discrimination is unacceptable,” Crist said.
Sharpe sponsored an ordinance last year to create a domestic partner registry that would have allowed unmarried individuals to make certain legal decisions for their partners. The registry was a priority for the county’s lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community, partly because gay marriage is prohibited in the state.
The registry went down to defeat on a 3-4 vote as Sharpe hung his head.
“I’ve always said on an issue like that, no one should be discriminated against,” Sharpe said. “That’s where you start.”
Crist voted against the measure. So did Al Higginbotham, Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman, who could not be reached for comment Monday.
Even as the social climate surrounding sexual orientation has changed, political and legal institutions have been slow to adapt. According to Beckner, it is still legal in 29 states, including Florida, to fire someone because he or she is gay, and in 34 states if transgender.
According to research by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 15 percent to 43 percent of the lesbian, gay and bisexual people surveyed since the mid-1990s reported experiencing unfair employment practices based on their orientation. For transgender people, 20 percent to 57 percent of respondents reported unfair employment practices.
Beckner said the issue is not just one of fairness and equality; intolerance can also hurt the county’s economic development efforts. Over 90 percent of the large companies in the U.S. have non-discrimination policies that address sexual orientation and gender identification, Beckner said. “They are solely focused on recruiting, as well as retaining the brightest and best talent,” Beckner said. “Businesses have come to understand the importance of diversity inside their organizations. If they’re looking to relocate, they want to make sure the community they’re moving to is also respectful and welcoming of their employees.”