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What took so long?



Signs of a big send-up were everywhere: Protesters bearing homemade signs paced in front of City Hall. TV crews made last-minute adjustments. Council Chambers was standing room only. And not one but two rooms were set up with television monitors for the overflow crowd.

The occasion last week was the first round of public hearings designed to help Orlando leaders determine whether to amend the city's civil rights code to include sexual orientation as a protected class. If the code is amended, businesses would be liable for discriminating against gays and lesbians when hiring, renting or offering public accommodations.

The debate was conducted much like you'd expect. Gay activists provided anecdotes of homosexuals passed over for a job or apartment. Social conservatives, mainly Christians, said they preferred that the social order remain one man, one woman; God, if not the Bible, weighed heavily in their arguments.

If the tone of the meeting was familiar, that's because the city went through the same debate four years ago. At that time, the social conservatives fought unsuccessfully to prevent a gay-pride group from using city flagpoles to display rainbow flags, banners that generally represent tolerance and unity.

Many of the same cast of characters attended both meetings. Patty Sheehan, who was a lesbian activist in 1998, was now speaking as the city's first openly-gay elected official. Debbie Simmons, who heads the gay-dominated Metropolitan Business Association, was among those who endorsed the amendment. John Butler Book, an Apopka pastor, headed up the opposition.

The anachronism didn't end with the similarity of the two meetings, however. Ever since the city's Human Relations Board began earlier this year to consider whether to hold a public hearing, everything about the debate has had a '90s feel to it. Tampa added sexual orientation to its ordinance 10 years ago.

So what has taken Orlando so long?

According to city officials, the gay community finally got its act together. Mayor Glenda Hood told a meeting of the Metropolitan Business Association in 1995 that she wanted grassroots support before she'd take up their cause. "I will not become a champion of an issue that divides," she said then. "I will always be a champion of an issue that builds."

The gay community listened. Before the 2000 mayoral election, several gay leaders buttonholed Hood into signing a pledge in support of adding sexual orientation to the city's internal anti-discrimination policy. That policy amendment, which prohibits the city from not hiring or promoting gay employees, was adopted later that year.

At about the same time, a group calling itself Orlando's Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee and made up of gay activists approached the Human Relations Board about changing the civil rights code.

The expectation is that the board, a five-member group naturally inclined to be sympathetic toward discriminated people, will move forward with a recommendation to the City Council.

Three members of the council -- Sheehan, Daisy Lynum and Ernest Page -- have voiced strong support for the amendment. Phil Diamond, who takes office June 3, says he "doesn't think sexual orientation should be the reason to lose your job." That leaves Vicki Vargo, Betty Wyman and Mayor Hood. In the past 10 days, Vargo has met independently with Wyman and Hood to discuss the ordinance, but was unwilling to reveal details of the meetings. "I'm working on it," she said.

Commissioners who have yet to endorse the amendment will likely be judging public sentiment. Opposition so far has been less intense than expected. A majority of the speakers at last week's hearing, 38, favored the amendment. Only 14 appeared in opposition. The Office of Human Relations, meanwhile, has received more than 1,600 pieces of correspondence denouncing the ordinance change. But 1,275 letters or e-mails were sent from outside Orlando, 96 from inside the city, leaving 232 addresses that couldn't be identified.

The Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based nonprofit legal agency promoting religious freedom, has already inquired about a referendum to repeal the amendment in the likely event it passes. But Joel Oster, a staff attorney, said the agency's main concern is that churches are exempted from the amended ordinance.

That shouldn't be a problem. The city's civil rights ordinance already allows churches and church charities to give preferential treatment to people of the same faith. "They will be exempted," Sheehan says.

One final concern is the enforcement of the amendment. If it passes, the Office of Human Relations can offer mediation to gays and lesbians who are discriminated against, and companies found to discriminate can be fined $500 per day. But gays and lesbians won't have the ability to file lawsuits. For that to happen, state and federal lawmakers would have to write sexual orientation into discrimination laws.

In fact, before the ordinance change came up, Sheehan was prepared to work on something other than the anti-discrimination ordinance. She wanted survivor benefits for partners of gay fire and police officers. "In terms of nuts and bolts and dollars returned, I thought that was important to do," Sheehan says.

Orlando still hasn't amended its survivor benefits policy even though state policymakers changed the law in July 2000 to allow police and firemen to designate domestic partners as pension beneficiaries.

Consequently, Orlando fire and police remain susceptible to the kind of drama currently going on in Tampa. That city is debating whether the partner of 19-year Tampa police veteran Lois Marrero, who was gunned down while chasing robbery suspects last summer, should receive pension benefits. Marrero's case has been clouded by the discovery that Marrero had more than one love interest.

Yet had she been allowed to name a beneficiary, the case would never have made national media attention. Hers is another example that protection for the gay and lesbian population should have happened years ago -- if only policymakers would have been brave enough to do it.


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