CLEARWATER — Legal protections for transgender people moved forward today, as Pinellas County commissioners unanimously voted to take up a measure that would amend the county’s human rights ordinance to include gender identity and expression.
If commissioners approve the measure on Aug. 20, the word “sex” in the county’s human rights ordinance would change to “gender” to include those who identify with a different gender. It would make it illegal for most organizations in the county to deny employment or services to individuals based on their gender identities.
Despite Tuesday’s unanimous vote, there may be a battle brewing over how far protections for transgender people should go.
Commissioners Karen Seel and John Morroni voted against a similar measure in 2008. Commissioner Norm Roche, a conservative who was not on the commission then, appears supportive of a discussion but skeptical of the change.
“Quite frankly, I think we’re going to be at a point, given where this country is moving and the division in this country, we’re going to be back here adding political party to the human rights ordinance sooner or later,” said Roche.
The proposed change might adversely impact businesses, especially if they’re expected to accommodate transgender individuals by adding unisex restrooms. County Human Rights Office director Paul Valenti said that people should simply use facilities that correspond to the gender they identify with.
“It absolutely does not require separate facilities,” he said.
Some believe the inclusion will actually help businesses and the local economy, though. Todd Richardson, a development officer with LGBT nonprofit Equality Florida, said the bulk of Fortune 500 companies have adopted similar protections, as have many cities and counties in Florida. Pinellas County would be the fourth government in the Tampa Bay area to do so, behind Tampa, Dunedin and Gulfport.
“These companies know that by ensuring all employees are protected, they are able to recruit and retain top talent to their companies,” Richardson said. “Adding gender identity to the [human rights ordinance] will ensure Pinellas County protects people no matter who they are and will continue to make our county an attractive place for prospective employers and employees to live.”
Worrying about which bathrooms people would use bogs down the human rights conversation with “fear-mongering,” Commission Chairman Ken Welch said.
“That story 40 years ago was ‘What’s going to happen with these black folks that are in the bathroom with your kids?’ ” he said. “At some point we have to be adults [and] have this conversation.”
Michael Keefe, executive director of transgender advocacy nonprofit Trans*Action Florida, said the proposed amendment to the county’s antidiscrimination policy would be a step forward, but he would have preferred it if gender had its own category instead of replacing “sex” outright.
“It’s almost like they put too many details in and made it a little more complicated than it has to be,” he said. “[But] it absolutely covers what we needed to cover.”