Stepping out of her car in Pensacola after driving from Orlando, Gina Duncan came to a bizarre realization. “I have less rights here in Pensacola than I did when I left Orlando this morning,” she said while addressing the Pensacola City Council on Monday.
Duncan, a transgender advocate and activist who works for advocacy group Equality Florida, was in town to speak on a proposed human rights ordinance which was discussed at a council workshop Monday afternoon. But afternoon quickly turned into night as more than one hundred people crowded City Hall in downtown Pensacola. The workshop, originally scheduled to take place in a smaller conference room, was moved to the large council chambers by the city’s fire marshal as a result of the swelling audience.
Sponsored by Councilman Brian Spencer, the ordinance would not be the first of its kind in the state. Dozens of other Florida cities and counties have already passed similar legislation.
The ordinance basically says two things: that no one can be discriminated against, in housing or in employment or in public accommodations, on the basis of age, race, color, religion, disability, military status, ancestry, national origin, place of birth, marital status, familial status, sex, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation; and that those who feel they’ve been discriminated against have the right to fight it out in court.
Sara Latshaw, North Florida Regional Director for the ACLU of Florida, spoke to the council as a representative of the ACLU, which helped draft the legislation. “People in Pensacola know that discrimination has no place here,” Latshaw said. “Everyone should have the opportunity to earn a living, have a place to live, and be treated equally and with dignity in the eyes of the law.”
Supporters and opponents had their chance to sound off inside council chambers.
“This is simply what is right,” said Norman Ricks, a resident of Pensacola for more than 60 years, as he voiced his support for the human rights ordinance. “These people are asking nothing but a level playing field.”
Ricks recalled conversations he had with the late former Florida governor Reubin Askew, considered by historians as one of the pioneering statesmen of the civil rights era. “One of my very best friends was Reubin Askew,” Ricks said. “On one of his last trips to Pensacola, we had coffee at the Coffee Cup restaurant. I asked him, Reubin, was there anything in your administration you didn’t get done? He said yes, ‘I wanted everybody to feel equal, including black, white and gay.'” Ricks continued, “It is not right. It is not fair to deprive them of the same rights that many others have.”
Some voiced opposition to the ordinance on religious grounds, a number of whom invoked concerns about bathrooms and “traditional family values.”
“As has been expressed previously the primary concern as it relates to restrooms is not necessarily abuse by someone who identifies themselves as transgender, but abuse of that provision in this ordinance by someone who would say, ‘Today I’m transgender,'” said James Wooten. “And there’s no way for verification on the spot for someone who is a pedophile or someone who would abuse the system. How does the individual business owner know whether someone walking into the restroom is or is not transgender, or simply abusing the system? What safeguards are you going to put in place to protect our children?”
“Your religion has absolutely zero bearing on the law,” added Nathan Monk, in response to those who opposed the ordinance on religious grounds.
“This is not a democracy,” said State Representative Mike Hill, presumably in reference to the crowd of supporters who outnumbered those against the ordinance in the council chambers Monday night. Hill, along with several other audience members, spoke to the council in fierce opposition to the proposed ordinance. Hill suggested that his district, which covers parts of the Pensacola metro area, is predominately opposed to any such legislation. After Monday night’s council workshop, Hill went to Twitter to voice his opposition further:
— Mike Hill (@MikeHillfl) November 10, 2015
The city council sat through more than 60 speakers from the public before getting to discussion of the actual ordinance, with the majority of councilmembers voicing support for moving legislation forward.
“We can not take action tonight,” said Councilman Brian Spencer, pointing out that final votes cannot be taken in the workshop setting. “However, what we did state was that in our previous council meeting, we promised we would take all necessary steps to expedite this legislation. Time is of the essence.”
“I believe this council wants to move forward,” added Councilman Larry Johnson. “I’d like to get something moved along quickly and get protection for all citizens. I do not believe discrimination has a place in Pensacola.”
Councilman Charles Bare seemed to be the lone dissenting voice on the council, stating, “This is not something we need to pass in a hurry.” Bare said he favors a referendum over an ordinance.
Depending on the changes that will be made to the proposed ordinance, a vote could take place as early as next month.