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Pinellas mulls protections for transgender people

CLEARWATER — Transgendered individuals may soon be protected under Pinellas County’s antidiscrimination policy.

Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission will vote on a measure that could ultimately extend legal protections to people who do not identify with the gender with which they were born. Pinellas County would become the fourth Tampa Bay area government to do so.

The new policy would apply to public and private employers as well as businesses that provide housing and accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants, though religious organizations and some private clubs would be exempt.

The ordinance would strike the word “sex” from the county’s anti-discrimination policy and replace it with “gender,” which the ordinance defines as “sex, pregnancy, [and] childbirth” as well as “gender-related self-identity, self-image, appearance, expression or behavior.”

The genesis of the proposal doesn’t stem from any single complaint or incident. County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who is sponsoring the proposal, said it was an issue he ran into regularly last year on the campaign trail, so now he intends to make good on an election-year promise.

While including transgender people in the ordinance would allow them to seek damages in the event of discrimination, the move is largely symbolic.

“We’re inclusionary,” Justice said. “We support diversity countywide,”

Pinellas County would become the seventh county in Florida to add transgender people to its antidiscrimination policy and would follow Tampa, Gulfport and Dunedin in doing so. St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman both said they would support such an ordinance for the city, though such a measure would be unnecessary if the county passes one.

Trans-Action Florida, St. Petersburg-based nonprofit organization, lobbied the commission for the measure, as did the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber urged the county to pass an ordinance because, it argued, more tolerance and diversity among workplaces fosters a better business climate on the whole.

The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement Monday in support of the measure.

“Transgender people are often confronted with a wide variety of barriers, facing difficulties meeting basic needs like getting a job, housing or health care, or in having their gender identity respected,” the statement reads. “Adding explicit protections for gender identity would be a strong first step in addressing discrimination against transgender people in Pinellas County.

The seemingly widespread support of the policy is relatively new, at least for Pinellas. The Largo City Commission in 2007 fired City Manager Steve Stanton after his decision to become a woman became public. The controversy put a spotlight not only Largo’s possible discriminatory practices but the problems transgender individuals face nationwide.

When the issue came up at the county level a couple years later, the climate was not favorable.

“A few years ago ... the only voices in support of adding gender identity were Commissioner Latvala and me,” County Commission Chairman Ken Welch said in an email.

Last year, two progressive Democrats, Justice and Janet Long, were elected to the commission.

“The commission has changed since then,” Welch said in the email. “My guess would be that we have at least four votes.”

Even the most conservative commissioner, Norm Roche, has said he might support the measure, as long as ambiguities that can come with a broader definition of gender wouldn’t cause an undue burden on businesses.

“It’s a real issue that we have to figure out how to address,” Roche said. “I understand the need to have those things addressed. ... Clarify what it is, and I’d be all about protecting it.”

Roche said he’s not sure if someone who wants to dress like the opposite gender for a day should have the same protections as someone who undergoes gender reassignment surgery.

The county’s Human Rights Office director, Paul Valenti, said each case would be assessed on its merits.

The extended protection would allow those who feel they were discriminated against based on gender identity to file a formal complaint with the county’s Human Rights Office. The case would be investigated and, if substantiated, would undergo an administrative hearing.

Possible punishment for violating the ordinance includes a fine of as much as $10,000 for a first incident and as much as $50,000 for subsequent incidents.

Tuesday’s vote is a procedural measure to authorize advertisement of the ordinance language — a formality required ahead of the Aug. 20 hearing where the new law could be adopted.

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