Principles vs. Politics

She's crying now. Halfway through the story of how the principal and assistant principal at the school where she teaches threatened and harassed her after learning she was a lesbian, her voice cracks and she begins to sob. She tells me she has taught in the county's public school system for 27 years and no one ever questioned her ability. Now, she says, there are days when she is afraid to go to work. "The impression that I got was that I was a bad human being, that I did not belong there, and that I was out on a limb all by myself," she offers meekly.

As she talks I realize I've made a terrible mistake.
In advance of next week's vote on the county's proposed gay rights ordinance, there has been a great deal of misinformed rhetoric over precisely what the ordinance promises. For the record, it merely adds the phrase "sexual orientation" to existing county laws prohibiting discrimination based on a person's age, race, religion, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, family status, or disability. It means that in areas such as housing and employment, you can't discriminate against someone because he or she is gay.

You can't fire someone because he or she is gay.
You can't refuse to hire someone because he or she is gay.
And you can't refuse to rent an apartment or sell a home to a person because he or she is gay.

That's it. Broward County already has such an ordinance. So do Palm Beach and Monroe counties. Miami Beach passed its own ordinance a couple of years ago. Eighteen states have similar laws on the books, including California, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Washington.

There are no "special rights" being vested through this ordinance. It has nothing to do with legalizing same-sex marriages or forcing companies to extend benefits to an employee's gay partner. There is no flowery language in the ordinance condoning homosexuality or requiring that it be taught to children as an alternative lifestyle. It simply says it is unlawful to discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation. Period.

Yet somehow this ordinance has become the most controversial piece of legislation the county has dealt with in years. Eighteen months ago, then-Commissioner Bruce Kaplan proposed an anti-discrimination ordinance, but his colleagues refused to even allow a public hearing on the matter.

This past November 5, Commissioner Katy Sorenson introduced similar legislation. The commissioners grudgingly agreed, by a 7-6 vote, to hold a public hearing next Tuesday, after which they will decide the measure's fate. "It is simply an anti-discrimination ordinance," Sorenson says, confounded by the opposition.

One claim often made by critics of the measure is that supporters haven't documented a need for it. This is where I thought I could help. I set out to write an article based on the stories of people who have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

Last week, though, as I listened to this teacher tell me about the time she hid inside a closet in her classroom, crying, I knew I was taking the wrong approach. Earlier in the day, I had spoken with a police officer at Florida International University who was nearly fired because he was gay. On a piece of paper in front of me I had another dozen names of individuals who believe they were either fired or evicted because of their sexual orientation.

What was I trying to prove -- that gay people suffer discrimination? Do a majority of people in this county really doubt that?

Earlier in the month I had met with a group of people from SAVE Dade (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), principal supporters of the proposed ordinance. And when I described to them the approach I wanted to take, showing that gays are subject to discrimination, SAVE's chairman, Jorge Mursuli, stared back at me as if I were from some distant planet.

"Of course discrimination happens," he replied. "Come on, we've all grown up in the same society, and I don't believe there is one individual, let alone one commissioner, who hasn't heard firsthand derogatory remarks about gay and lesbian people." Mursuli may believe the discrimination is painfully obvious, but he was more than willing to help me, and offered the names of people to contact.

A year and a half ago I had criticized Mursuli and other proponents of Kaplan's gay rights ordinance for failing to do their homework. The measure was rushed before the commission and it failed. Since then SAVE has worked assiduously to win a broad range of support. "We realized it was our responsibility to clarify what the issue was and in the process answer people's questions and address their concerns," he explains. "We went out and had a lot of one-on-one conversations with lots and lots of folks. I've spent 90 percent of my time outside the gay and lesbian community just talking to folks and sitting down and being open and trying to be a good listener as well."

It hasn't been easy. "This is a very emotional issue," Mursuli acknowledges. "This is about the dignity of our lives, and often people's opinions about us are hard to stomach. But I think it is important to allow people to express their fears. If they are good people, and they have an objection to it, what is it? What is their fear? It is important for us to understand that so we can address it.

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