Sixteen years after a sharply divided Miami-Dade County Commission banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, a far more united board on Tuesday overwhelmingly extended the ban to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression.
The 8-3 vote, after more than four hours of debate and public comments, prompted a burst of applause from advocates who leaped from their seats in celebration. They had spent all day at County Hall anticipating a victory, but also defending themselves against ardent critics who claimed the expanded law would erase the privacy barriers between men and women in bathrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms.
Most commissioners dismissed those arguments as baseless and agreed to amend the county’s human-rights law, which forbids discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation, to protect transgender and gender non-conforming people.
“We were elected to defend these people and provide the protections that they need,” said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who spearheaded the legislation.
But opponents warned the county might get sued if sexual predators intent on abusing the law pose as transgender.
“How could you look at a victim after they’ve been raped in a bathroom?” said Sandra Wong of Cutler Bay. “Where is my right to go safely into a bathroom?”
After the vote, Tony Lima, executive director of the LGBT-rights group SAVE, said there’s a good chance opponents will challenge the ordinance with a ballot measure.
“For the past two years, we’ve been waiting for this moment,” Lima said after the ordinance passed. “But for the last six months, we’ve also been working on our plan for this becoming a ballot measure.”
During Tuesday’s debate, there were repeated echoes of Dec. 1, 1998, when commissioners — by a single vote — banned discrimination against gay men and lesbians. Miami-Dade first took that step in 1977, but the ordinance was overturned by voters in a subsequent referendum championed by former beauty queen Anita Bryant. Voters upheld the sexual-orientation protections in a 2002 ballot measure.
Tuesday’s meeting featured several of the same people that 20 years ago, nearly to the day, sat in the same chamber debating an amendment to the same law. The man who was the swing vote back then, Commissioner Dennis Moss, was absent this time around, though he co-sponsored the legislation.
“It’s interesting to note that in the 16 years that have transpired since we passed the ordinance, while much catastrophe was predicted by the opposition, the world has not come to an end,” said Katy Sorenson, the former commissioner who sponsored the 1998 legislation.
Driving the latest amendment was increased awareness that transgender people, who are sometimes victims of hate crimes, face discrimination that can make them more vulnerable to depression, addiction and homelessness, supporters said. Critics made religious and moral arguments against the legislation.
“When Dorothy told her dog, ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ — I get that,” said Marc Mortensen, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, in West Miami-Dade. “I realize our community, our world, our nation has changed. It’s been a major cultural shift... But it still doesn’t make it right, my friends.”
Two commissioners, Edmonson and Bruno Barreiro, tried to pass the gender identity and expression amendment last year, but they withdrew it after the legislation languished in a committee. They re-filed the proposal in September, knowing that one of their colleagues who opposed the change, Lynda Bell, had lost reelection to Daniella Levine Cava, who campaigned in support of the amendment. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa then assigned the legislation to a friendlier committee.
Once the law cleared the public safety committee last month, there was little doubt it would be adopted by the full commission. Six of 13 commissioners — just one short of a majority — had signed on as co-sponsors.
In the end, Barreiro, Edmonson, Levine Cava, Sosa and Commissioners Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime and Xavier Suarez voted in favor. Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Juan C. Zapata voted against. Moss and Commissioner Javier Souto were absent.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who didn’t have a vote, supported the change but said nothing on the issue in Tuesday’s meeting.
Bovo, who represents portions of Hialeah, Miami Lakes and Palm Springs North, tried unsuccessfully to amend the legislation to exempt gender identity and expression protections in bathrooms, locker rooms, showers and dressing rooms.
“When do somebody’s rights begin, and when do somebody’s rights end?” he asked. “The right of privacy. The right of safety. The right of being a parent.”
Supporters said other municipalities with similar protections — including 20 in Florida, Broward and Monroe counties and the city of Miami Beach among them — have not widely reported problems in bathrooms and locker rooms. They also noted that criminal behavior would continue to be outlawed, regardless of the perpetrator’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
“I think we’re getting confused with the term transgender versus cross-dresser — and there is a big difference,” Jordan said. “Let’s not make the assumption that just because you may be a straight male going into the bathroom that you’re not a pedophile.”
In the months leading up to the vote, some commissioners had been targeted by legislation opponents with demonstrations outside their district offices, a lawsuit and propaganda that, in Sosa’s case, falsely tied her — a Cuban-American Republican — to the Communist Party. Sosa and Monestime, the incoming chairman, indicated Tuesday that they have not forgotten the attacks.
“It’s not right for somebody to call me out at my church, in the middle of worship, to be aggressive towards me,” Monestime said, without elaborating. “It’s unfortunate to see that some of us — especially some of our faith-based individuals — have forgotten the portion of tolerance, of love and compassion that the Gospel has called upon us to live by.”
The public hearing was at times intensely personal, with speakers on both sides sharing discrimination experiences and disclosing sex crimes committed against them or their loved ones.
“Sitting in this room today, I was trying to remember when was the last time I felt so unsafe, so scared,” said Tobias Packer, a transgender man. “It’s really painful when somebody who loves the community so much is sometimes reminded how much the community won’t love them.”
Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, which led the campaign against the amendment, warned commissioners not to dismiss critics’ concerns. “Don’t mock or make fun of the arguments regarding the public facilities,” he said.
Opponents’ fear stemmed from not understanding what it means to be transgender or gender non-conforming, supporters said, tacitly acknowledging that the public information campaign they said they have carried out to educate the community on LGBT issues has not been entirely successful.
Even if the criticism was rooted in a misunderstanding, it was valid, Zapata said before voting no. “That fear is real,” he said. “Whether or not it comes from ignorance, it’s there. It’s tangible.”
Perhaps the passage of the gender identity and expression amendment Tuesday could be a step in dispelling misinformation, Heyman said.
“Maybe by having a protection, the education and information will allow these people equal protection as they pursue a private lifestyle,” she said.