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.
"If their fear is biblical or religious, let's talk about how this is a civil issue, not a religious issue," he adds. "Let's talk about how you can maintain your religious beliefs and still support something that supports the dignity of human life."
As a result, Mursuli and SAVE have garnered endorsements for the ordinance from dozens of organizations, including the NAACP, the United Teachers of Dade, the American Jewish Congress, the Dade Bar Association, the AFL-CIO, and the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board. The cities of Miami Beach, Aventura, Pinecrest, Bay Harbor Islands, Key Biscayne, North Bay Village, North Miami, and South Miami also support the ordinance.
A growing number of influential elected officials, including Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas (who went AWOL during last year's debate), are now standing up for it. "We cannot profess to be a progressive, multicultural community with international appeal while refusing to respect our own residents' democratic rights to be heard and participate in public discussion on a matter of public policy," Penelas wrote in a memo to the commission. "Adoption of the proposed policy, rather than offering special rights, will simply extend protection against discrimination to a currently unprotected group."
Perhaps the most significant result of SAVE's hard work was a statement issued a few weeks ago by the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami. The church said it would not oppose the ordinance and noted that the measure did not promote homosexuality but rather protected people from discrimination. The Archdiocese's statement included remarks from Archbishop John C. Favalora, who declared that "opposition to homosexual activity and homosexual lifestyles can never be construed as acceptance of bigotry, hatred, or discrimination against people with a homosexual orientation."
SAVE has also lobbied individual county commissioners. In some cases, Mursuli has put them in touch with gays and lesbians in their districts who have been victims of discrimination and who would have been helped by the ordinance.
In addition to such anecdotal evidence, Mursuli has pulled together statistical information -- both on a national and a local level -- to document the need for the ordinance. According to figures provided by the Metro-Dade Equal Opportunity Board (EOB), from 1993 to 1995 slightly more than 2 percent of housing-discrimination complaints involved sexual orientation, compared with 2.6 percent based on religion, 3.5 percent based on gender, 11 percent based on national origin, and 46 percent based on race. (Within the City of Hialeah, the number of complaints based on sexual orientation jumps to 9.4 percent, according to the EOB.)
But Mursuli warns that these statistics can be misleading. Because the EOB can't take action against discrimination based on sexual orientation, some complaints aren't even registered and as a result don't show up in their statistical analysis. If this ordinance is passed, however, the EOB would have the authority to investigate such allegations of discrimination, just as it is empowered to scrutinize cases involving race, religion, national origin, and gender.
At SAVE's request the local office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently agreed to track calls received over a 90-day period in which people complained of job discrimination arising from their sexual orientation. Once again, as this is not an issue EEOC can address, it normally disregards such calls. During the test period, however, twenty complaints were received from people alleging discrimination based on their sexual orientation. If the ordinance is passed, EEOC staff in the future could refer such calls to the county for assistance.
Despite SAVE's efforts the ordinance is likely to be defeated. Only six commissioners have pledged to vote in favor of the legislation on Tuesday: Sorenson, Gwen Margolis, Bruno Barreiro, Betty Ferguson, Barbara Carey, and Jimmy Morales.
It needs just one more vote to pass.
The remaining seven commissioners, however, have already announced their intention to vote against it. None of them would actually admit to being a bigot, and all are likely to make speeches emphatically proclaiming their opposition to discrimination. But in the end, their words will mean nothing.
"If you are opposed to discrimination, why would you be opposed to saying so in the law?" Mursuli wonders. "I'm convinced that a majority of people in this county support this ordinance and believe that discrimination is something that should not exist and that we should protect people from being discriminated against. We are not talking about an endorsement of anyone's life or who they sleep with. We are talking about a fairness issue, a discrimination issue."
Opponents of the measure certainly know that gays and lesbians suffer discrimination; they just don't want to acknowledge it. Which is why, after listening to the schoolteacher tell me about her experiences, I realized there was no need to document one emotionally devastating story after another. That would merely divert attention from the real problem threatening this ordinance: the bigotry, political opportunism, and cowardice of certain elected officials.
Here are the opponents:
Javier Souto and Pedro Reboredo: In a way it's difficult to fault Souto and Reboredo. At least they harbor no hidden agendas. Simply put, they are homophobes. They are too narrow-minded and their fears too deeply ingrained to allow for any change in their thinking. Gay people are evil, and this ordinance would do nothing less than grant them special rights, or as the sagacious Souto declared earlier this month, "special powers." These two are lost causes.
Natacha Millan: For a woman who likes to bully her way through issues, Millan has displayed a remarkable profile in cowardice during this debate. Unlike Souto and Reboredo, who are straightforward bigots, Millan hides behind a pathetic rationale: My constituents would want me to vote no.
Of all the pitiful excuses expressed by opponents of the ordinance, Millan's is the worst. It implies that she personally believes the measure is worthy (although she won't say so publicly) but feels she must vote against it because she is obliged to express the will of the people.
In truth Millan is afraid that people will think she's a lesbian if she votes for the measure. Cuban radio can be vicious. So can her opponents in Hialeah, who would likely use a yes vote to brand her a dyke. So she'll play it safe and vote no.
That's her right. I just hope she'll remain consistent. If she is going to turn her back on this issue, then she shouldn't be allowed to trot out her cross-burning story again. The anecdote (I've heard her recite it at least twice) goes something like this: As a young woman, Millan moved with her new husband to North Carolina. Soon after arriving, however, someone burned a cross on her front lawn.
Millan invokes this tale to shame those Anglos she suspects of harboring resentment toward Cuban Americans. Not since someone burned a cross on my lawn, she'll trumpet, have I felt such bigotry and hatred! It's a story she wears like a flattering fashion ensemble. After Tuesday, though, that outfit won't fit any longer. The next time she stands in front of a mirror trying to remember how nice she once looked, she should ask herself: What happened to that newlywed in North Carolina, the one who, despite being isolated and alone, understood the need for courage in the face of bigotry and intolerance?
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla: Welcome to the first round of the mayor's race. For some inexplicable reason Diaz de la Portilla has decided to bolster his political future by courting Christian conservatives. A few months ago he received an award from Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition. Now he's poised to lead the effort to kill this ordinance.
By opposing the measure, Diaz de la Portilla hopes to draw a clear distinction between himself and Penelas, who is up for re-election in 2000. This is nothing more than cynically crass political posturing.
Although the public has come to expect such sleazy tactics from county commissioners, it is beneath contempt to play this sort of game with an issue that affects so many lives. Worse, Diaz de la Portilla has been utterly disingenuous with backers of the measure. For months he led them to believe he hadn't reached a decision. He allowed ordinance supporters to arrange private meetings with victims of discrimination so he could hear their painful stories.
His response: Not good enough. Merely anecdotal.
It was a cruelly wasteful expenditure of time and emotion for which he should be ashamed. And it raises a question: Just how many people must suffer before Miguel Diaz de la Portilla comes to believe it is wrong?
Dorrin Rolle: Normally it takes rookie politicians a few election cycles to develop a flair for stabbing people in the back and breaking campaign promises. Not Rolle.
Earlier this year, when Rolle first ran for a commission seat, he courted his district's Upper Eastside gay community, men and women who were eager to help him defeat James Burke, the former county commissioner who had voted against the gay rights ordinance last time. Gays donated to his campaign; Mursuli even set up a phone bank to turn out voters on election day.
Last month, however, after Katy Sorenson announced her intention to introduce the gay rights ordinance, Rolle was suddenly overcome with indecision. Then when the measure came up for an initial vote on November 5 -- a vote to allow a public hearing on the proposal's merits -- Rolle voted against it.
Apparently it's fine with Rolle if gay people work behind the scenes to help him win election to office. He just doesn't want to associate with them publicly. "I was most disappointed in Dorrin's vote," sighs Mursuli. "I don't know. It's just one of those things where you still hope. It's not over till December 1, when the final vote is taken. I just hope he sees this for the simple, basic issue that it is."
Dennis Moss and Miriam Alonso: Although both Moss and Alonso have indicated they will vote against the ordinance, supporters remain hopeful they can persuade at least one of them to switch.
Moss is thought to oppose the ordinance for two reasons: He is being pressured by a handful of black clergy in his district to vote against it as a way of repudiating homosexuality, and he apparently believes that adding "sexual orientation" to the county's anti-discrimination statutes will somehow weaken the existing law and undermine the protection afforded to blacks.
For Moss, it seems, protection against discrimination is like a pie: The more slices you give away, the less there is for everyone. "When you are a victim of discrimination," Mursuli notes, "it feels just as lousy whether you are gay or black or Jewish or Hispanic. The one thing we should all agree on is that acting out discriminatory beliefs and having it affect other people is not okay."
To his credit Moss is still listening to supporters of the ordinance, and he called for a series of community meetings, which began last week, to discuss the issue.
Alonso, on the other hand, is simply being timid. Like Millan, she is afraid of political fallout from her constituents should she vote in favor of the ordinance. But she has not been as vehement as Millan in her opposition. Following a personal plea from Penelas, Alonso voted in favor of holding next Tuesday's public hearing.
Ordinance supporters now hope she can be persuaded to vote in favor of the measure by arguing that the political repercussions will not be as bad as she believes. For one thing, Alonso, who was easily re-elected in September, will not face voters again until 2002. Supporters also hope Alonso will be swayed by the fact that the proposed ordinance enjoys the support of several prominent Hispanic organizations, including the Spanish American League Against Discrimination and the Coalition of Hispanic American Women.
Coincidentally, the teacher with whom I spoke lives in Alonso's district. A child of Operation Pedro Pan, she left Cuba 37 years ago and says she is mystified by the reluctance of Cuban-American commissioners such as Alonso to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance. "How can they condemn Castro for violating people's human rights when they won't even pass such a simple ordinance?" she asks. "Haven't they learned anything?"
Mursuli says he remains "cautiously optimistic" that a seventh favorable vote will emerge on Tuesday. But regardless of the result, he believes supporters did everything possible this time around to give the measure a chance to succeed. "We have had the conversations, we have been patient, we have been diligent, we've answered the questions, we've jumped over obstacles, we've been kind and generous in our comments and in our time, we've given people the benefit of the doubt, we've educated them, we've gone out and built a broad base of support," he says. "We've treated each commissioner with respect, even when we weren't treated the same way in return. There is nothing else we could do. Now it's time for them to vote. Our elected officials need to take a stand one way or another. We want to know."
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And if they vote no? "Well, then they need to realize they will be sending a message that says: A certain group of people in this community are valued less than others," Mursuli cautions. "And when you do that, others begin to believe they can treat those people differently. It gives them a license to exercise their discriminatory beliefs in whatever way they choose. For some people it might be not hiring someone. Other people might express their views violently."
Katy Sorenson promises that if the ordinance fails on Tuesday, she will introduce it again next year, and the year after that if necessary. "Eventually it is going to pass," she vows. "That is the lesson of the civil rights movement. People aren't going to stop fighting for their rights."
Mursuli, who manages a Miami security firm, agrees. "I'm 37 years old," he says. "I have a mortgage. I contribute to this community on many levels. My partner [Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros, resident choreographer for the Miami City Ballet] has made a significant contribution to the arts in this community and has been an ambassador for this community nationally and internationally. We are part of this community, and so are many other gay and lesbian people, and we are not going anywhere. It's not like if the commission votes no, we are going to go away.
"We've become very well organized. We have an active, active volunteer database. We were at the polls this year, and we've identified close to 10,000 supporters. We're very serious about this.