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Sexual orientation gets the nod



According to the Human Rights Campaign, 294 of the Fortune 500 companies, 1,083 other major corporations, 336 colleges and universities, 250 state and local governments, and 38 federal agencies have included sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination policies. Another 11 states and 122 cities and counties ban discrimination in the private sector.

Now, the city of Orlando is a step closer to joining that long list. The five-member Human Relations Board unanimously passed a recommendation last week that the city council should add sexual orientation to the city's civil-rights ordinance. Gay men and women would be the prime beneficiaries of the amendment, though heterosexuals and bisexuals would likely receive protection as well.

Human Relations Board members will vote in late August on what the exact language of their recommendation will be. Members considered ordinances from St. Petersburg and Broward County at last week's meeting in studying possible wording for Orlando's amended ordinance.

Future debate will likely center on whether Orlando should protect against false perceptions of sexual orientation in the same way the federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on the perception of a handicap.

Some board members were concerned that by protecting perceptions the city would be trying to practice a form of mind control. "I'm having a hard time with this," said Melvin Rogers, a UCF administrator. "I don't know how to define perception. This isn't sitting well with me right now."

Another issue likely to be discussed in August is whether to prohibit discrimination based on one's association with people of a certain sexual orientation. Some board members said they would like to offer protection for heterosexuals who might be evicted because they share an apartment with a gay man or lesbian.

About 50 people representing the two most vocal sides of the issue attended the board meeting. Members of religious organizations were interspersed with a handful of gay activists, most of whom were members of Orlando's Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee, which was instrumental in spearheading the move to add sexual orientation to Orlando city code.

Sexual orientation has been such a controversial topic that it forced several Orlando commissioners into embarrassing situations even though they won't officially hear the issue until this fall.

Former Commissioner Don Ammerman signed a pledge during spring elections saying he would endorse adding sexual orientation to the city's civil-rights code. Then he criticized his challenger, Phil Diamond, for supporting the measure.

Vicki Vargo, whose district includes College Park and Rosemont, said during the election she might endorse the amendment if enough evidence was presented to persuade her. She then quietly began working with social conservatives to oppose the measure.

As one sign of how contentious the issue has become, three of the five board members declined interviews after last week's meeting. They said statements made during the meeting should explain why they voted for the recommendation.

All five members of the board, two women and three men, said they were persuaded by testimony during an April fact-finding hearing hosted by the Human Relations Board. The testimony, while anecdotal, was enough to show discrimination against gay people, board members said, warranting protection of that class of people.


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