Florida anti-discrimination laws, possible repeal

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Voters went to the polls yesterday in an election that could strip the local government’s anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents. The fight began after the city commission last year revised Gainesville’s anti-discrimination ordinance to protect transgender people – those who are born one sex but identify with the other. That allows the city’s approximately 100 transgender residents to use the public restroom of their choosing, along with protecting them from job and housing discrimination. The charter amendment on yesterday’s ballot would void the city’s ordinances barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Jim Gilbert, a spokesman for Citizens for Good Public Policy, said the message of those supporting repeal has remained consistent: ‘Keep men out of women’s restrooms!’ ‘That’s our motive, plain and simple,’ Gilbert said. On the other side, a group known as Equality is Gainesville’s Business is campaigning for a ‘no’ vote on Charter Amendment 1. It argues that the city ordinance does not need amending and that the transgender argument is really a screen for a larger attack on sexual minorities. Home to the University of Florida, Gainesville is generally considered a gay-friendly city surrounded by conservative north Florida. ‘This is about attacking the gay, lesbian, bisexual community and repealing protections that are in place,’ said Joe Saunders, a spokesman for Equality is Gainesville’s Business. If passed, the measure would also prohibit the city from enforcing anti-discrimination laws that protect other categories of people not specified by the Florida Civil Rights Act, which recognizes race, color, creed, religion, gender, national origin, age, handicap, martial and familial status. A steady line of students were casting ballots yesterday at the Reitz Student Union. Jeanette Paulino, 20, a political science major from Miami, voted to keep the city’s policy in place. ‘I don’t think we should discriminate against anyone,’ she said. Alex Harper, 21, a public relations major from West Palm Beach, said he also voted to retain the city’s protections and viewed it as a free speech issue. Harper said he viewed the restroom issue as ‘conservative propaganda.’ University of Florida President Bernie Machen and his wife, Chris, said they both opposed changing the law. ‘It’s not needed,’ said Machen, who added that one of the things his family likes about Gainesville is its diversity. Pricilla Santos, a 23-year-old university employee, voted to repeal the city’s policy. ‘I don’t want men in women’s restrooms,’ she said. Voting prior to election day suggests strong interest in the issue, with four times the typical number of city voters casting early ballots in recent weeks, said Pam Carpenter, the Alachua County supervisor of elections.