CLEARWATER — Five years after refusing to extend legal protection against discrimination to the transgendered, Pinellas County commissioners Tuesday reversed that decision following an impassioned, three-hour public hearing.
The 6-1 vote makes it illegal for most organizations in the county to deny employment, housing opportunities and services to individuals who identify as a different gender from the ones on their birth certificates.
That includes the right for transgendered people to use public restrooms, changing rooms and public showers designated for the sex with which they identify.
The evening meeting was so packed with supporters and opponents that two overflow rooms were required. After more than three hours of public comment, commissioners approved the measure, saying it was their role to represent every resident of the county.
“We cannot legislate against what is people’s hearts and minds, but we can set policy to protect every member of our community, whether it is 2 percent, 20 percent, 40 percent,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice. “We are guaranteed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the American way. It is the Pinellas way tonight.”
The vote means that “gender identity” is added to the county’s human rights ordinance, which already prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status and disability.
Transgendered people who feel they are the victims of discrimination can now file a complaint with the county’s human rights office, which will conduct an investigation. Since transgendered people do not have any protective federal or state laws akin to the Americans with Disabilities Act, cases of discrimination would be referred to the Division of Adminstrative Hearings.
Many of the objections to the county’s decision cited religious or moral rationales. Opponents said the law would give people protection based on how they feel and not their biological makeup.
“I’m OK with them pursuing their lifestyle; the problem is they want to protect it farther than they have it now,” said Anthony McDaniel.
But the biggest fear repeated by residents was that men dressed as women would be able to use women’s restrooms.
“I don’t want a man because his gender identity has become female being able to use the same restroom as I do,” said Palm Harbor resident Dorothy Bonds.
Other residents voiced fear that girls would be in the restroom with a transgendered person who still had male genitalia.
Paul Valenti, director of the Office of Human Rights, said most small businesses have unisex or single occupier toilets. Larger companies have toilets with stalls so privacy would still be provided, he said.
He said other cities and counties including Broward, Palm Beach and the cities of Tampa, Gulfport and Dunedin, already passed similar laws with no problems.
“None of the nightmare scenarios being raised came to pass,” he said.
Supporters of the law said transgendered people face frequent discrimination. Some said it was sad they needed this law.
“We’re talking about the people who too often are denied the right to a job or accommodation or basic decency,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. “We want to show Pinellas County is the kind of place you will be judged by how hard you work, not the random prejudice you might encounter.”