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SRO crowd at Jax HRO "community conversation"

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First Jax HRO “community conversation”: the epitome of the democratic process?

On Tuesday evening, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry convened a panel to discuss the possible expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance, and the larger issue of LGBT rights.

With what Curry called beforehand a “balanced panel … organized by senior staff” with members ranging from a representative of JASMYN (Cindy Watson) to the Liberty Counsel (Roger Gannam, the lawyer for Kim Davis in Kentucky and a member at one point of Curry’s church and Wednesday Bible study), the expectation was the first of three “community conversations” would be robust.

Even before the event began at the Florida State College at Jacksonville’s downtown campus, more than a dozen LGBT activists waited for the doors to open, a symbolic launching of a conversation they’d been waiting to resume since the failure to accomplish HRO expansion in 2012 under the Mayor Alvin Brown administration.

The reasons that measure failed, and the failure of policymakers to move forward until now, have been widely debated. For Curry, who said during his campaign he was “unconvinced” that legislation was necessary yet pledged to have a community dialogue if elected, the conversation itself was a culmination of a campaign promise, even if there was skepticism from left and right regarding his disposition on the matter.

Before the event, the mayor’s comments were neutral, referring to the promised “community conversations” on the campaign trail, hoping that those in attendance would “listen and try to learn something.”

The room was jammed, with overflow seating and advocates and opponents lining the walls. The New York Times sent a reporter and photographer. Activists of all stripes were there. Political types such as Lisa King, Policy Director (and former Councilman) Robin Lumb, former mayor (and current Councilman) Tommy Hazouri, and former mayoral candidate (and Councilman) Bill Bishop showed up. It was the most contentious room  Curry has faced in since his inauguration.

The mayor, to a smattering of applause, introduced the event as an “opportunity to learn … a community conversation related to this issue.”

Reminding the audience of “One City One Jacksonville” and that “we’re all God’s children,” Curry asked for mutual respect.

More sustained applause followed.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel explained “the state of the law” on equal or human rights “to protect various categories of individuals from discrimination” in a speech echoing his June memo on anti-discrimination legislation.

Eleven of Florida’s 67 counties, Gabriel said, had enacted HRO-type legislation applying to LGBT people.

Jacksonville, meanwhile, had “considered a proposed ordinance in 2012 … to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.”

That bill was defeated.

Gabriel noted federal and state protections, then laid out the question.

Should these laws be expanded?

Moderator Michael Boylan in introductory remarks emphasized it should be a “civil discourse” and explained extended ground rules that suggested certain elements of the audience might not be temperamentally inclined to such civility.

Then, speakers.

Michael Myers, a Jacksonville native and Stanford Law graduate, had married his partner, had twins, and moved here with him almost a decade ago.

Myers contended that the LGBT community, straight allies, and the business community support an HRO, and that even though outsiders are helping to coordinate efforts it’s “simply not correct” to frame the effort as driven by outsiders.

The “tonal message” of an HRO is that our community is “inclusive and respects diversity,” Myers said.

Myers, arguing for the fully inclusive version, pointed out that “trans is now being more accepted” as part of our “human existence.”

Myers also had a take on Houston’s campaign, saying that “an HRO does not trump sexual predator laws,” and “what happened in Houston was the basest form of politics.”

Then Roger Gannam of the Liberty Counsel, there “to assist Mayor Curry,” said, “Does Jacksonville need an LGBT law?”

Gannam grew up in the city, went to Lee High School, and spent 30 of his 41 years in town, he said.

“I care about the Jacksonville community,” Gannam said.

Regarding the issue, Gannam echoed Curry’s campaign rhetoric: “I don’t think [legislation] is needed.”

Then, the panelists: Garry Bevel of the Jacksonville System of Care initiative moved the crowd when he talked evocatively of the “stigma” LGBT youth and teens experienced. Pediatrician Jeff Goldhagen, the “proud father of a gay son,” expressed his intent to talk about the “biology and physiology” of gay youth.

Then Gannam again said he was there to “represent the good and fair people of Jacksonville.”

Finally, Cindy Watson, of JASMYN — Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network — spoke. She’s worked for decades to help LGBTQ young people. An alumnus of the Human Rights Commission during the John Peyton administration, she said she brought “real life experience to the conversation” and closed with applause.

The panelists went back and forth. Saying there’s a “lack of need” for such legislation got applause, but a real point, made by Goldhagen, was that for youth it’s still a minefield.

Other nonnegotiable challenges: Poverty disproportionately affects children of LGBT families.

Gannam redirected to the original proposition of whether a law is needed.

“The HRO does not address that. It cannot address that,” Gannam said, citing a lack of proven “causation” between outcome and causes.

Cheryl Grymes addressed the school district’s anti-discrimination policy in the context of the larger discussion, saying it’s a “matter of keeping our kids safe.”

“In addition to having the policy, we’re also engaged in lots of support strategies” including diversity training, partnering at the state level regarding “transgender” and other relevant issues, and participating annually in a JASMYN conference on educational solutions to “LGBT challenges,” including “gay/straight alliance clubs.”

“We are very deliberate about the students we serve,” Grymes said.

Of course, a school district is a more controlled environment than society at large.

Questions of “gender identity” were reduced by one panelist, saying “what if I identified myself as an African-American?”

The crowd gasped, but it seemed like a routine that had been used elsewhere.

He wound up, saying there was “no evidence” such a law was needed, getting cheers, and a few boos.

“Transgender people,” contended Watson, bear a disproportionate amount of violence, including police brutality.

The solution: “real recourse,” such as that created by a law.

As one might expect, an hour into this, no minds seemed changed. The community conversation, as the case with so many in the checkered history of the Bold New City of the South, spotlighted a fundamental division in the community.

On one side, people who see the issue as a human rights question; on the other, a tapestry of “unintended consequences” arguments, with a discussion of sexual predators attacking children in bathrooms, and laws that would make it “easier” for that to happen.

“In Toronto, a man posing as a transgender woman attacked women at a shelter,” Gannam said.

He contended it was not “hypothetical” or “alarmist.”

Public comment followed.

An 82-year-old mother of a transgender child who was raped by a policeman in Columbia County who “knew he was transgender,” said she wanted to be sure that “all of my children would be safe in Jacksonville.”

A speaker, directly addressing Curry and his vow for a Jacksonville solution to such issues, pointing out Ronnie Fussell suspending courthouse weddings in light of same-sex marriage becoming the law.

He asked for a show of hands of those discriminated against because of gender identity or expression.

About a third of the crowd raised their hands.

Then a child with a transgender relative argued for an HRO.

Carrington Mead, a lawyer and LGBT activist, said she had been harassed for wearing a suit and asked whether she was using the wrong bathroom at the courthouse.

Then Judy Sheklin, president of the Duval National Organization for Women, spoke up about a familiar scenario: a lesbian couple denied a rental place to live.

Then, speaking to the bathroom argument on behalf of NOW, Sheklin said, “We believe in justice and would never support legislation that put our safety at risk.”

Gannam wondered whether it was a “single family home” where the owner can discriminate.

“Facts always matter,” he said, and “if we pass the law, it will create burdens.”

Then, piously, he said, “Jacksonville is a fair city.”

Only a few in the crowd laughed.

For those who had seen this drama before, such as Council President Greg Anderson, it represented progress. He noted that in 2012, the discussion never really got past the two factions talking past each other.

Can it happen this time? Curry’s administration has two more such meetings before the end of the year. Perhaps it’s just a messy process.

Then again, perhaps, as Donald Rumsfeld said, “Freedom is untidy.”

And if so, maybe this chaos is what democracy looks like.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at AG@FloridaPolitics.com

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