The big question going into the final Jacksonville HRO Community Conversation, about the effect of potential legislation on businesses, held at Jacksonville University on Tuesday evening, wasn’t about the proponents of a Human Rights Ordinance expansion to the LGBT community; rather, about the opponents.
Longwood Florida’s own Roger Gannam, apparently the Swiss Army knife of panelists, back (despite well-documented outcry) for a third “community conversation.”
And the Rev. Ken Adkins, a preacher who divides his time between Glynn County, Georgia, and Jacksonville, who was “pro-HRO” a few months back before changing positions and putting out the most homophobic rhetoric since the 1980s and ’90s rap records on social media in recent months.
Adkins, who might have been expected to say the most quotable things on the panel, saved his most interesting remark for the end, asserting that in a school in Massachusetts, “sixth graders are being taught anal sex.”
Beyond that, though, he largely avoided the kind of pitfalls that would have made for great entertainment.
The Lenny Curry administration, caught in a realpolitik trap between humoring the so-called “social conservatives” of his electoral base and bringing Jacksonville in alignment with virtually every other city Jacksonville sees as an economic competitor, had a legendarily hard time getting panelists to oppose the HRO.
Why bother with that when quiet chitchat with Council members, most of whom aren’t exactly profiles in courage themselves, will do?
The panel for Tuesday night, set up with Adkins, Gannam, and Diann Catlin (who, after the first of these events, said that the mayor’s spokeswoman was biased against her side) making the contra case, and the considerably less pyrotechnic triumvirate of Hugh Greene of Baptist Health, Amy Ruth of Blue Cross Blue Shield, and former GOP Councilman (and current lawyer) Jack Webb making the affirmative case.
Curry, as is customary at these events, led off with introductory remarks, thanking the participants for “civil dialogue” and putting this discussion in the framework of “local solutions for local needs,” before announcing another series of community conversations, starting in February, about youth violence.
“Few things that evoke passion and emotion are easy,” Curry added, taking ownership of the dialogue and the process.
As General Counsel Jason Gabriel discussed, as at the previous two of these events, anti-discrimination legislation on a national level, the panelists were a study in contrasts. Webb appeared ready to give an opening statement; Gannam seemed to be putting his game face on; Adkins, meanwhile, looked out at the crowd, lips pursed and arms folded.
“Given these existing federal and state protections,” Gabriel asked, “should existing laws be expanded?”
And that, indeed, is the question of the day.
The crowd was considerably more restrained, through the panel introductions, than the previous two assemblies, perhaps because unlike at the Edward Waters College gym, where the last event was held, the air conditioning was on instead of the heat.
The panelists gave their opening statements.
Greene reprised the Jax Chamber’s statement of opposition to discrimination in any form, from 1992, saying that it’s “past the time” to extend protections to the entire community.
As well, Greene noted the anomaly of Jacksonville, unlike other major cities, not extending such protections, asking if talented people would be likely to move here, knowing such protections are not offered.
Catlin spoke next, giving her background and saying that “nationwide,” with this sort of legislation, “the small businessperson is crucified.”
“The big businesses already have [these protections] in place,” Catlin added.
Former City Council President Jack Webb spoke next, talking of not being convinced, when on Council, of the need for such legislation.
In 2012, he was asked by former council presidents to take a position; he expressed support “from a faith-based perspective,” noting the “inherent dignity” of every human being and also noting that supporting such a bill does not sanction supporting a given lifestyle.
“To the extent that an ordinance is passed,” Webb added, “it’s an expression of public policy.”
Gannam noted that he’s “been up here a lot lately,” and then observed that “this law is not warranted” given that “LGBT persons recognize the fairness of Jacksonville” and live here in great numbers.
And “any disagreement can be taken to The New York Times,” he said, as members of the crowd groaned.
As well, “there’s absolutely no evidence” that one of these laws would improve Jacksonville’s economy.
“We can hold our own with any city in Florida,” Gannam said, “regardless of the existence of one of these laws.”
Amy Ruth then spoke of Florida Blue’s strong performance concerning LGBT rights, saying that she often hears, from prospective job applicants, that “I’m not sure that Jacksonville is the right community for me.”
Adkins was next, “applauding the mayor for having the courage to include me” on this panel, as a “pastor and a businessman.”
The pastor got a mixed crowd reaction when he observed that “I’m not sure if being gay is part of the civil rights battle,” drawing a distinction between “behavior” and the racism of the south decades ago.
Meanwhile, “if there is a problem, why not have it be settled by a referendum?”
The crowd whooped at that.
Webb, as opposed to the halting nature of panelists in the previous panels, then took command, taking issue with the referendum canard (“we had a referendum, and it was called the general election”) and noting that the lack of documented complaints with the Human Rights Commission was because LGBT community members were not a protected class.
Gannam fired back, saying that there was no evidence of a “widespread discrimination problem” that could be remedied by this legislation.
Adkins was not to be denied, saying that it was “interesting” that business leaders would call for this, given that they would not hire ex-offenders, before reiterating his call for a referendum.
Again, to enthusiastic applause.
What became apparent, watching this panel, was that there were two good lawyers, a firebrand orator, two corporate types, and one representative of Old Jacksonville. And the man getting the most visceral crowd reaction was the preacher whose stock in trade was to get that.
The discussion soldiered on, with Catlin bringing up the florist who didn’t want to deal with the gay wedding, before bringing up Coexist bumper stickers, and noting that “coexistence is a two-way street.”
Adkins, meanwhile, noted that “if this changes here in Jacksonville, what do you do with the people who’s been incarcerated?”
Gannam, meanwhile, brought up bakers and t-shirt makers whose conscience was affronted by demands to produce a product that didn’t accord with their views, citing the “insidious danger” of a law like this when it came to opposing same-sex marriage and other shibboleths of the social-conservative right.
Webb, the only former legislator on the panel, then noted the perils of the “parade of horribles” arguments, saying that such concerns could be addressed in the legislative process.
Catlin returned to her themes that Jacksonville is a friendly city which delights in diversity. And Webb agreed, saying that such friendliness should be codified into law.
And ultimately, the discussion is law. And Gannam, a professional messenger on this subject, likened LGBT people who might need protection to segmenting Jacksonville into “people who love the Jaguars and who don’t love the Jaguars.”
“Every business owner should have the right to live their own lives,” Gannam said, and run their businesses following their personal values.
“You pass a law like this,” Gannam added, and such personal freedom is circumscribed.
Is the community fully inclusive in such a way that legislation is not required? Or, as Adkins said, are we “living in a time when Christians need a law to protect them?”
“We are victimized and called all kinds of names because we don’t believe in a behavior,” Adkins continued, adding that “when you try to push [your choice of homosexuality] down my throat, I have a problem with it.”
Jimmy Midyette, of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, spoke, noting that his family has been here since the 1830s and that it’s high time “for the city to join the civilized world” and pass this legislation.
Adkins responded, saying that “there’s no need for any other laws” on this subject. Catlin said that laws like this were “one lawsuit after another.”
And Webb? He said, “this is all about the fear of the unknown,” and that many of the concerns could be addressed through the “legislative process.”
Regarding the potential for “frivolous lawsuits,” Webb had news for people: they exist today.
The banter continued the talking points, as made throughout the process, from the audience members and panelists on both sides.
A commenter told a long story about someone who couldn’t find shoes small enough to fit her in the local mall; Webb referred him to Amazon.com.
And another commenter asked what adverse effects were created by other protected classes in the HRO.
Gannam noted that the issue in the 1960s was a “rampant problem that needed to be addressed,” with the solution outweighing any “detrimental effect.”
Webb, meanwhile, noted the difference between “reasonable accommodations” and “undue burdens,” saying, again, that the legislative process could handle such distinctions.
If the Curry administration wanted to emerge from these conversations with a consensus for legislation, they didn’t. What resulted was not an exchange that moved forward, but an entrenchment of established views on both sides.
The sideshow is over. The legislative process has to begin. And the grown folks have to come to the table and negotiate something workable, addressing the concerns of the religious right while advancing meaningful protections for those who aren’t part of the flock.
Or? This happens again in a few years.
Webb’s comments, repeated multiple times, on respecting the inherent dignity of every human being not being inconsistent with “traditional family mores and values,” would seem to be the way forward.
However, a mythology persists on the opposing side: that there is some way to go back in time, to the era when one salary could support a family and the two-parent family stayed together, weathering storms, like the plucky families in Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel.
If we could go back to those halcyon days when women wore aprons and men wore suits to the dinner table, maybe that world would exist?
In that world, would LGBT people be subject to discrimination?
Is public policy intended to affect a workable compromise? Should it privilege traditionalism over the world of the 21st century? These are open questions.
Questions that local office holders should have to address in an unambiguous way.
A telling moment: the contretemps between Adkins and Webb about the referendum.
Will representative democracy or the demagogues carry the day?
Curry closed, noting that “each of you sitting in this room, shoulder to shoulder, are all here as citizens of Jacksonville.”
Something that’s been lost in this discussion.
Meanwhile, Curry’s “learning process” on this issue will continue, he said, citing the “level of passion” on this issue as “tremendous.”