The path to tonight’s vote extends back further than a few weeks ago when the city cringed through another round of punishing public comment, further than last February when a comparable bill was voluntarily withdrawn, even further than 2012 when similar legislation was voted down by Jacksonville City Council. The path can be traced back at least a decade, maybe longer, when members of the local LGBT community began questioning whether they were protected from discrimination under the city’s human rights ordinance. The short answer – then: No.
Over these many years, and months, and amendments, the pursuit of equality persisted.
This afternoon, about 50 HRO amendment supporters milled around Hemming Park amidst red, heart-shaped balloons, making signs, sharing stickers and gearing up for the final countdown. They’d endured blistering commentary that exhibited the worst of ignorance and bigotry, including some from members of council, and a seemingly endless barrage of justifications for their being treated different than their straight, cisgender counterparts, many rooted in Bible verses that progressive Christians would rather never hear again. The mood was optimistic, but also weary, weary of struggling for basic rights that many, if not most, take for granted, weary of defending their place in this community, their value to this city, their right to pursue life, liberty and happiness without hindrance at work, at home or in public accommodation. One sign simply said “Quit being a dick,” a coarse sentiment that nonetheless encapsulated the way many seemed to feel about those who would deny the LGBT community these rights.
City Council was already speeding through the agenda as both sides – supporters of and opposition to amending the HRO – piled into chambers. The council had a full agenda before it, including some important bills that deserve space another day, but it was obvious that everyone’s mind was on the HRO. As she recapped some of the business before them, Council President Lori Boyer even joked, “I know no one is thinking about next week right now.”
Typically, the fireworks on any given bill have long since become embers by the time it reaches the full council for a vote. Committee meetings and public comment are where the action is – usually. Tonight was an exception. With an overflow crowd watching in chambers, in the library and elsewhere in city hall, several councilmembers hashed out the same arguments that the everyone had heard yet again.
As ever, Councilman Bill Gulliford was the most vocal opponent of the bill, filing and supporting amendment after amendment to water it down with results that became increasingly predictable as the minutes ticked by. Gulliford’s amendment to send it to a voter referendum failed, 13-5. (Councilwoman Katrina Brown was not present.) Councilman Danny Becton’s amendment to exempt all businesses owned by a sole proprietor failed, 13-5. Gulliford’s amendment to remove gender identity and expression from the bill failed, 13-5. The only amendment that did pass was Councilman Scott Wilson’s to strike the clause that allows for jail time or imprisonment of up to 90 days for violations of the HRO, which was ratified unanimously.
As in the past, a few opponents on council dusted off that “gay friend” they’ve probably been hiding in a closet somewhere to justify their position. Also as in the past, some grandstanded on the basis of religion. Also as in the past, the bill’s sponsors, Councilmen Tommy Hazouri, Jim Love and Aaron Bowman defended the bill adequately and, at times, admirably. Emerging as a strong and persuasive voice of support for HRO expansion was Councilman Reginald Brown, who moved the crowd to shouts of agreement that were quickly silenced by Boyer when he vocalized his opposition to the amendment to strike protections for the transgender community.
Citing his military experience, Brown said, “If [transgender people] are willing to die for you, for this flag, for this country, why would we leave any soldier behind?”
In the end, they did not get left behind. By a vote of 12-6, Jacksonville’s City Council voted to amend the HRO to protect people from employment, public accommodation and housing discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and expression. Businesses with less than 15 employees are exempt, as are religious entities. It was a victory a long time coming, and as the crowd spilled out of chambers, their joy was palpable.
Duval County Superintendent of Schools Nikolai Vitti, who sent a letter to council in his capacity as a private citizen urging them to approve the HRO amendment, told Folio Weekly, “It’s a step in the right direction,” adding that the councilmembers deserve “to be commended” for their votes.
Jacksonville Coalition for Equality’s Dan Merkan, part of the team that has campaigned tirelessly for this legislation, admitted, “I’m a little overwhelmed. This is such a long time coming.”
In Hemming Park, a celebratory crowd of a few hundred hugged, kissed, danced and cheered their victory; it was perhaps only then that this day started to feel like Valentine’s Day for many.
The joyful celebration was further buoyed when Mayor Lenny Curry announced an hour later, according to the Florida Times Union, that he would not exercise his veto and would let the bill become law. Today, on February 14, 2017, it seems that love can win in Jacksonville.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the bill passed 12-8.