Chairman Thomas Scott's brave stand for transgendered people

Tampa City Council votes to expand protections for the transgendered.

Last week the Tampa City Council voted to expand anti-discrimination laws to include transgendered individuals. The 5-1 vote came after two hours and more than 60 speakers expressed their thoughts and feelings on the issue in what at times seemed to be a festival of hate and ignorance.

Before the meeting, the only drama in the room was which, if any, Council members would reverse their vote from two weeks prior, when they had voted unanimously to include gender identity and expression in the city's human rights law, effectively prohibiting workplace discrimination against people who change genders.

Councilman Charlie Miranda was the lone member who switched his vote and voted no. (Councilmember Linda Saul-Sena was absent). He seemed unsatisfied by the answers given by City Attorney Chip Fletcher, about how the new law could avoid potential disruptions in the workplace, before casting his dissenting vote.

But in perhaps his finest hour on the Council, Chairman Thomas Scott delivered a stirring speech before announcing that he would vote in support of the ordinance.

Following a string of citizens who invoked the bible and scripture as reasons why the Council should not approve the amendment (including a series of black preachers), Scott, who is pastor at the 34th Street Church of God, said that though he had a record of never previously condoning or voting to support gay issues, the matter in front of him was about discrimination, and therefore, he had no choice but to support it.

"I believe love covers multitudes," he said. "I believe that Jesus loved every person in this room. I want to ask those here: If a person has a sex change, will you accept him at their church? Or will you turn them away? Or would you require them to go back to their original gender? Those are the questions we must ask from the religious community ... this ordinance does not address transvestites, this does not allow men to go into women's restrooms ... this is not about the molestation of children ... this is about those who have made a decision and changed their gender and that they should not be discriminated against."

Scott is the Chairman of the Council and a declared candidate for Mayor in 2011. As a Hillsborough County Commissioner back in 2005, he had no problem voting with Commissioner Ronda Storms on a resolution that banned gay pride events in the County. Call it maturation or simply good politics, his words, along with those from John Dingfelder and Mary Mulhern, were calming and measured following earlier commentary by the citizenry that showed fear and scorn for the transgendered community.

Amongst the critics there were an inordinate number of people who feared that they, or their children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren might inadvertently be exposed to the genitals of the opposite sex in the restroom — with some speakers verging on parody.

18-year-old Sarah Fechtel used a variation of a theme that was last employed by former Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum when discussing same sex marriage. That is, compare gays, or in this case, transgendered people, to dogs.

"If I was to call myself a dog," Fechtel told the Council, "would that give me the right to go to the bathroom on somebody's yard? Do you see where this could lead?"

Her mother, Terri, then spoke conspiratorially about how successful gays and lesbians are financially. "I did some research a couple of years ago, comparing the salaries for gays compared to straights. Gays make more money — investigate that ..."

Then there were those from the religious community, some of whom Commissioner Scott would consider his colleagues in the church. W. James Favorite is pastor of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church. He asked why there was any need to include gender identity in a human rights ordinance, and then said of transgendered people: "[they will be] preying on and defiling our children. ... [A] proliferation of this perversion is irresponsible ... giving opportunities to sex offenders to molest our children ... sex offenders to cross back and forth ... getting up in the morning and deciding they don't want to be male or female."

Christian conservatives like Terry Kemple of the Community Issues Council and the Florida Family Association's David Caton were in the house, of course. According to gay rights activist Zeke Fread, those forces had flooded Council members with letters opposing the addition to the ordinance by nearly a 6 to 1 margin in the two weeks between the two votes.

For every opponent of the measure, there were supporters of it, including several transgendered people who came before the board. That includes Stephanie Nichols, who said, "I may not fit the cookie cutter mold of a man or a woman, but nobody's perfect." She and others talked about the discrimination in employment and other areas that they or other transgendered people they know have gone through.

Their critics dismissed this as "anecdotal," and several African-Americans brought up an argument issued previously when discussing the LGBT community: That unlike themselves, transgendered people had a choice in the matter, with some adding that they would have to live down that choice.

Mike Pheneger with the ACLU said the transgendered were a small class, but if any council members believed they weren't discriminated against, than they had their heads in the sand. "It's insulting to assume that they will be sexual predators," he said in reaction to the comments to the contrary expressed earlier. "Most sex predators are in fact heterosexual men and women."

In the end, the voices of hate had nowhere to go. Though some gay rights activists have called Florida one of the toughest places in the country when it comes to rights and protections, Tampa is hardly breaking new ground in the sunshine state. Sixteen other municipalities in Florida, including Dunedin and Gulfport offer such protections. Several of those local governments did so after the controversial firing in 2007 of Largo City Manager Susan Stanton, who lost her job after announcing plans to become a woman.

The issue first came before the Council on Oct. 1, when Philip Dinkins with the city's Human Rights Board told the body that the inclusion of transgendered people into the ordinance had been discussed over the past year.

As the Board went to vote, Councilman John Dingfelder hailed the handful of transgendered people who came to the meeting, saying they spoke with tremendous courage as the entire community sat and judged them.

"I don't care who they are," he said. "They're human beings with the right to liberty and justice for all. Somebody alluded to the Holocaust; others have spoken of the civil rights movement. It doesn't matter if were talking about millions or 5 or 6 people. It's our job to protect them."

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