Raw emotion and invocations of biblical damnation over a proposed ban on discrimination against transgender people dominated Wednesday what was perhaps the fiercest debate Miami-Dade County Hall has seen this year.
Advocates of a more inclusive society, including transgender men and women who spoke of how difficult it can be to find public acceptance, were outnumbered by conservatives who, in a show of force, assailed the legislation as immoral and a threat to public safety. Two likened South Florida to Sodom and Gomorrah.
What proponents called a civil-rights issue was boiled down by opponents to a mundane task that blurred the divide between men and women: going to the bathroom. A law protecting people like him, a transgender man said, offers the “dignity to pee in peace.”
After a public hearing that lasted nearly four hours, the commission’s Public Safety & Animal Services Committee voted 3-1 to bring the legislation to the full board for final approval, probably next month.
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Voting in favor were Commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Bruno Barreiro, the proposal’s main sponsors, and Sally Heyman. Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo voted against.
“We need to show some initiative up here,” said Edmonson, whose district extends from downtown through Miami Shores. “It is unfortunate that this has been characterized as a public-safety issue when it is really a fairness issue, an issue of equality, an acceptance issue.”
The vote capped a tense hearing that attracted a capacity crowd, including a supporter of the proposed amendment who was escorted out after she yelled from her seat. People filled the commission chamber before the 9:30 a.m. meeting began, requiring an overflow audience to be accommodated in the lobby. More than 200 people signed up to speak, most of them in opposition.
“It’s Miami, Florida — not Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Joe Davila, a Miami real-estate agent who, like many others, invoked God in criticizing the proposal before commissioners. “You will give an account to a higher authority if you’re familiar with the Book of Life.”
If given final approval, the legislation would amend the county’s existing human-rights ordinance to include protections for “gender identity” and “gender expression.” The law already prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public services on the base of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, marital status, familial status or sexual orientation.
Several backers of the change said that Wednesday reminded them of the decades-long political battle to add “sexual orientation” to the legislation — a move enshrined by voters in a 2002 referendum.
“It has come to bear that it was the right thing to do, that it did not change the way of life for our county,” Commissioner Barreiro said, without directly referring to the prior amendment to protect gay men and women.
Only one commissioner — Bovo, who represents portions of Hialeah, Miami Lakes and Palm Springs North — agreed with critics who said adding transgender protections was unnecessary.
“I’m not in favor of any kind of form of discrimination,” he said. But, he added, “I do not believe that the transgender community has a claim akin to the suffering of African Americans or women’s rights. … This seems to me to be a carve-out of a minority within a minority that wants a special right.”
He asked whether any complaints have been made against the county over transgender discrimination — and was told there have been several, perhaps five to 10 over the past three or four years, that Miami-Dade has trouble classifying precisely because the law lists no transgender protections.
“We accept them under the umbrella of gender or sexual orientation [discrimination] because at this moment we don’t have any formal protections for those types of complaints, which makes it difficult in terms of our enforcement,” said Erin New, legal liaison to the county’s Office of Human Rights and Fair Employment Practices.
“You have people who are victimized and will never come forward because the protection isn’t laid out yet,” Heyman said.
Commissioners gave the amendment initial approval in September. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa then assigned the legislation to the public safety committee — a friendlier venue for the law, which a year ago stalled before a more hostile panel.
Proponents were buoyed by the August defeat of Commissioner Lynda Bell, who voted against the legislation last year. She lost reelection to Daniella Levine Cava, who pledged during the campaign to vote yes.
“Hear the message that the voters sent,” Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE, the county’s leading LGBT-rights group, told commissioners Wednesday. “We need to pass this policy.”
Among the groups pushing for the law were Equality Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League. Leading the campaign against were the Christian Family Coalition, which opposed adding “sexual orientation” to the human-rights ordinance in 1998, and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE, an African-American group led by socially conservative black clergy.
Earlier Wednesday morning, Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick threw out a lawsuit that eight individuals, apparently acting on behalf of the opposing groups, filed last week against Sosa in an attempt to stop the hearing from taking place. The plaintiffs argued Sosa broke the law by assigning the legislation to a more favorable committee. But commission rules give the chairperson discretion to set agendas.
Opponents circulated an email last week publicizing the lawsuit and essentially accusing Sosa, a Cuban-American Republican, of being a Communist. The email claimed transgender protections are favored by the Revolutionary Communist Party of the United States.
Sosa, who as chairwoman does not sit on any committee, did not attend Wednesday’s hearing. She dismissed the lawsuit and criticism against her in an interview with the Miami Herald on Tuesday. “I don’t discriminate, and I respect human rights,” she said.
On Wednesday, opponents wore stickers that read “Don’t Legalize Discrimination” — because they said the legislation could allow employers to fire workers who, for example, do not allow transgender men into a men’s dressing room.
They also contended that allowing transgender women to use public women’s restrooms could lend itself to abuse by men posing as transgender to prey on women, and insisted the county build separate transgender bathrooms.
“We do not hate, we do not discriminate against the transgenders,” said Rocio Torres, a resident of Hollywood in neighboring Broward County. “What if the predators, sexual predators — pedophiles, God forbid — they would dress as women and go into the bathroom?”
Transgender men and women already use public restrooms, supporters countered, calling the example a scare tactic. They said cities and counties that have previously adopted transgender protections, including Miami Beach, Key West and Broward, have not reported any trouble.
“I go in and close the stall doors. I wash my hands. I go out,” said Jessica Lam, a transgender woman, deejay and author of a children’s book about two gender non-conforming children.
S.F. Makalani-MaHee, a Fort Lauderdale pastor and transgender man, said living in Broward “affords me the dignity of living in a county where I don’t have to worry about being discriminated in the workplace.”
“It affords me dignity — dignity to pee in peace,” he said.
And discrimination against transgender people does exist, said Victor Lopez, a 16-year-old transgender boy who spoke with his mother, Vannesa Romero, by his side. He said he has attempted suicide.
“I have been harassed. I have been kicked out of restrooms,” he said. “I have been kicked out of many places.”
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.