Miami-Dade County on Tuesday could become the 21st municipality in Florida to adopt legal protections for people based on gender identity and expression, a category that includes transgender men and women.
Final approval by county commissioners would expand Miami-Dade’s human-rights law, which prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on conditions including gender, religion, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Supporters and detractors have been rallying their back camps to County Hall after a public hearing last month featured emotional testimony, most of it against the proposal.
Leading the opposition are Anthony Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition and Eladio Armesto of the Florida Democratic League, who insisted in a recent interview with the Miami Herald that their chief concern is not doctrinal but practical. If a person can determine their own gender identity or expression, regardless of physical attributes, anyone could use any bathroom — making it easier to abuse the law and commit a sex crime, they said.
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“Criminals look for easy opportunities,” said Verdugo, who questioned the need for the law at all. He cited several cases outside of Florida, including one of a registered sex offender in Oregon who was arrested after dressing as a woman, entering a locker room in a women’s community center and changing clothes near children.
Beyond public safety, Armesto said he considers homosexuality “biologically aberrant,” and Miami-Dade should not act like other municipalities that “have buckled under and allowed their charters to be turned into a billboard for an ideological statement.”
Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE, an LGBT-rights group, called the bathroom talk a red herring. “What’s illegal today will continue to be illegal tomorrow,” he said.
Miami-Dade has received 16 discrimination complaints based on gender identity or expression since the 2009-10 fiscal year, according to the Office of Human Rights & Fair Employment Practices. It doesn’t formally track them, given that the category doesn’t exist in county law. Complaints have generally been accepted under gender or sexual orientation.
Six of those complaints remain under investigation. The others were closed for a variety of reasons, including settlements and findings of no probable cause.
In one case, a complainant who wore men’s clothes at work was “instructed to wear women’s clothes.” In another, a complainant said his manager said “he could not do heavy maintenance jobs because, ‘ese pájaro no puede hacer trabajos fuertes.’” (“That bird can’t do tough work,” using a Spanish euphemism for “gay.”)
The complaints show the legislation “is long overdue,” said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, its lead sponsor.
Last week, state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, sent a letter to Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a critic of the legislation, asking that the protections based on gender identity and expression exempt bathrooms, locker rooms, showers and dressing rooms.
The recommendation came from two constituents, including Verdugo, Artiles said, adding that has his own concerns. Artiles is said to be considering a 2016 commission run.
“Here’s the reality: Less than a quarter of 1 percent of society is transgender,” Artiles said. “The way the law is drafted now affects the remaining 99.9 percent of people in a bad way.”
In his letter, Artiles referenced the city of Cleveland, which extended gender identity and expression protections in 2009 but exempted public accommodations. What Artiles didn’t mention: Two Cleveland council members have proposed expanding the law to cover those facilities.
“Five years ago, we were in a different place,” Councilman Joe Cimperman said.
The Cleveland amendment, which has yet to come up for a final vote, has also drawn opposition from religious conservatives raising concerns about sex predators and pedophiles, according to Cimperman. He called the criticism “out of touch with reality.”
“What we’re really trying to talk about are people who need the protection of the law,” Cimperman said. “City after city in Ohio that already have this in place are not seeing the ‘transgender Armageddon.’”
Miami-Dade proponents say the same is true across Florida. Broward County added gender identity and expression to its human rights law in 2008.
“We have not run into any issues enforcing our ordinance,” said Ed Labrador, director of Broward’s intergovernmental affairs and professional standards office. “One of the arguments that’s always used against these laws is that it’s going to create a new flood of litigation and so forth, and, in fact, that’s not the case.”
Broward and Miami-Dade define “public accommodations” as establishments that supply goods or services to the public, such as hotels, restaurants and — of more concern to critics — schools and daycare and senior centers. Members-only clubs are excluded, and there are exemptions for religious institutions.
Verdugo argued local governments could handle gender-identity discrimination cases under existing sex-discrimination prohibitions. That’s what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does.
But that agency only deals with employment cases. And even then, explicitly forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in federal law would make it easier to file cases, said Robert Weisberg, the commission’s Miami regional attorney. A proposal to do just that — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA — has stalled in Congress.
Only two transgender discrimination lawsuits have been filed by the commission, Weisberg said, in Indianapolis and Miami. They must first overcome legal challenges as to whether transgender people are even protected under federal statute, he said.
“There haven’t been that many [cases] because I think that people were reluctant to come forward — especially if they weren’t certain that there was even going to be a legal remedy,” Weisberg said. “As the law is evolving, more people are coming forward.”