In 2003, Monroe County and the city of Key West passed laws banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. Within five years, similar measures passed in Miami Beach, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Last Tuesday, Alachua County commissioners in North Florida voted 4-0 to protect transgender people.
And the same day, a similar proposal died in Miami-Dade County, causing gay activists to point fingers and figure out what to do next.
“We’re going to meet with commissioners again to make sure the support is there, and that the education is there, as well,” said Maria Barth, deputy director of SAVE Dade, the county’s leading LGBT rights group. “Then we’re going to continue with our ground game, our advocacy work within the county. Our staff is completely committed to passing this ordinance.”
Miami-Dade County — where singer and Florida orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant led a 1977 repeal of the county’s original gay-rights protection ordinance — again banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1998. Voters upheld the law in 2002. This year, SAVE Dade asked commissioners to protect gender expression and identity.
“Gender expression has to do with a person’s behavior or outward appearance as masculine or feminine. It can and commonly does differ from the stereotypes and gender roles associated with the biological sex a person is assigned by doctors at birth,” Barth said. “Gender identity is a psychological trait that has to do with how a person ‘feels’ — whether a person feels like a man or a woman, despite the biological sex he or she was assigned at birth.”
Gay activists nationally are seeking to protect transgender people from workplace, housing and other discrimination, and to provide physical and mental healthcare benefits for people in gender transition.
“Transitioning is the process some transgender people go through to begin living as the gender with which they identify, rather than the sex assigned to them at birth. This may or may not include hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery and other medical procedures,” according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the United States’ largest LGBT rights organization.
In May, Miami-Dade commissioners Bruno Barreiro and Audrey Edmonson filed a trans-inclusive amendment to the county’s existing gay-rights law, co-sponsored by Commissioners Barbara Jordan and Sally Heyman, that would have banned discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment based on gender identity or expression.
The amendment passed 11-1 on first reading with Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell voting no. The proposal then went to the commission’s Health and Social Services Committee, composed of Chairwoman Edmonson, Bell, and Commissioners Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Jean Monestime and Javier D. Souto.
Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the statewide Christian Family Coalition, called the gender proposal “harmful and unnecessary.”
Verdugo said the law “would create a hostile working environment for many individuals who simply don’t agree with these policies."
“What about the other people and their feelings?” Verdugo said, “You’ve got to remember the golden rule.”
The Christian Family Coalition spent weeks lobbying health committee members, especially Diaz and Monestime, in person, by phone and email.
Realizing last week that they didn’t have the votes, SAVE Dade members asked commission co-sponsors to pull the proposal. The group immediately blamed Bell for the defeat, and the next day thanked Edmonson, Barreiro, Heyman and Jordan.
State and national LGBT activists believe that the law will pass eventually.
“Miami-Dade will pass these protections. It is too diverse a community and there is too broad of a coalition that supports this to not succeed,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the state’s largest gay-rights lobbying group.
Smith said that her group has successfully fought similar campaigns in places like Gainesville, which passed a trans-inclusive law in 2008.
“The education process that came from challenging the lies and tactics to dehumanize transgender people paved the way to victory,” Smith said. “In the end, I think that will be true in Miami.”
Ultimately, Smith said, these heated discussions “make the case for why these laws are necessary.”
The most crucial first step in passing a gender-identity law is finding a person to be the face of the campaign, said LGBT activist Babs Siperstein of New Jersey, one of two transgender members of the Democratic National Committee.
“You need a face. Someone with a family who is willing to come out,” said Siperstein, 70, who publicly identified as transgender in the late 1980s. “I lived a dual life for 34 years,” she said. “Then my wife died suddenly.”
Acknowledging that many people have little understanding about gender issues, Siperstein encourages other transgender people to come out, too.
“Be part of the solution,” she said. “The general public doesn’t know. Frankly, the general media has given us terrible press. You’ve got the ‘tranny prostitutes,’ the drug people. You’ve had people get sick pumping the silicone.”
Siperstein, whose son and grandchildren live in Lake Worth, said it’s essential to relate to transgender people as neighbors and family members.
“Like in business, you have to play on what people have in common,” she said. “You’ve got to humanize.”
Last year, Siperstein attended her grandson’s bar mitzvah in Palm Beach County.
The rabbi referred to Siperstein as the boy’s “grandmother.”
“My son just kind of whispered to him, ‘No, she’s the grand father,’ ” Siperstein said. “It’s all part of being positive.”