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West Palm Beach backs protection for transgender employees

In today's Palm Beach Post:

WEST PALM BEACH — If an ordinance being considered by city commissioners becomes law, a top administrator or any other employee's job would be protected if the worker came to work yesterday as a man but arrived today as a woman.

The ordinance, given initial approval unanimously this week, prohibits discrimination on the basis of "gender identity or expression."

Commissioners are scheduled to consider it again on May 7. If approved then, it will become law.

The ordinance, considered at the request of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, comes in reaction to the firing of Largo City Manager Steve Stanton in Pinellas County. The firing came after it was disclosed that Stanton was preparing for a sex-change operation, after which his name will be Susan.

In 2003, Largo city commissioners rejected a law similar to the one being considered by West Palm Beach.

"Gender identity or expression" is defined in the West Palm Beach ordinance as "a person's individual attributes, actual or perceived" or "a person's self-identity, self-image, appearance or expression as a man or woman, whether or not different from those traditionally associated with the person's sex at birth."

The law protects not only those who might have a full sex change, but those who cross-dress or otherwise buck traditional gender roles, Assistant City Attorney Nancy Urchek said.

Rand Hoch, the president and founder of the Human Rights Council, praised West Palm Beach for consideration of the ordinance.

"West Palm Beach has always been on the forefront," he said. In 1991, the city became the first in Florida to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in public employment. The next year, it became the first to extend domestic partnership benefits to city employees.

Mayor Lois Frankel, who helped get the ordinance on the agenda, said it would help the city avoid potential "legal challenges and problems" by spelling out a policy now.

"The community is very diverse in many ways in being accepting of various lifestyles," she said.

Hoch said he hopes the law results in education on transgender issues and hopes the county will eventually approve such an ordinance.

"What should have happened in Largo is Steve Stanton should have had the opportunity to work with city staff and express to people what was going on and help them understand the transition," Hoch said.

City commissioners appear poised to put the law on the books.

"It's something that may or may never occur, but in the city, we have always prided ourselves in being a leader in anti-discrimination," Commissioner Bill Moss said.

Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell voted for the law but said she'd like to discuss a law that says "we are a city that just doesn't discriminate, period."

"Every time we add somebody to the list, what it says to me is, who are we leaving off the list?" she said.

Assistant City Attorney Josh Koehler said naming groups is crucial to protecting them legally.

"Specificity is always the key if you're going to create a cause of action of a basis for a complaint."

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