April 30, 2008
As the Florida Legislature draws to a close, there is progress to report about the gay rights bills introduced at the request of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
Knowing that it would take several years for Florida to enact GLBT-inclusive civil rights laws, in 2007 Senator Ted Deutch (D-Boca Raton) and Representative Kelly Skidmore (D-Boca Raton) initially introduced anti-discrimination legislation to amend Florida's civil rights and fair housing laws to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
The lawmakers' initial goals were to enlist co-sponsors for the two bills and to educate their colleagues on the need for GLBT-inclusive statewide anti-discrimination rights laws.
A "two-bill strategy" was implemented for the 2008 legislative session. Deutch's bill (S. 572) covered only "sexual orientation." Skidmore's bill (HB 191) also included "gender identity or expression."
Although this controversial strategy virtually guaranteed the Senate bill would not have the support of organizations committed exclusively to transgender-inclusive legislation, many activists were surprised by steps taken to undermine the Senate bill.
In a disturbing move, Equality Florida persuaded Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller (D-Hallandale) not co-sponsor the bill. However, Equality Florida's efforts failed with Senator Charlie Justice (D-Tampa) failed, who signed on as a co-sponsor. (B the end of the legislative session, Equality Florida ultimately ceased its active opposition to the bill and instead encouraged senators to take transgender rights into consideration in the future).
Throughout the session Deutch's implementation of the strategy was nothing less than brilliant. After initially enlisting five Democrats to co-sponsor his anti-discrimination bill, Deutch bided his time until early April, when two pieces of progressive legislation passed in their senate committees. Understanding that the time was right, Deutch approached Senator Jeff Atwater (R-North Palm Beach) -- who will be Senate President if the Republicans retain control of the Senate after the November elections -- about supporting the anti-discrimination bill. (The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council had already held preliminary conversations with Atwater about the need for GLBT-inclusive legislation). Atwater promptly became a co-sponsor and arranged for a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.
In a historic bipartisan 7-1 vote, on April 8 the Deutch Anti-Discrimination bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. Unfortunately, legislative time constraints ended any further progress on the Senate bill.
Great thanks go out to Senator Ted Deutch and his legislative assistants - Tara Lyn Laxer, Casey Kustin and Joshua Sztorc - for their tremendous efforts
In contrast to the efforts in the Senate where there was no concerted effort by GLBT groups to advance the anti-discrimination bill, the transgender-inclusive bill in the House of Representatives had the support of a broad spectrum of state and local organizations.
With the 2008 legislative session barely underway, Representative Skidmore (working closely with the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida, Save Dade, ACLU of Florida's GLBT Advocacy Project, FLAG, the Democratic clubs affiliated with Florida's GLBT Democratic Caucus, Florida NOW, and a handful of individual GLBT activists) enlisted twenty-seven of her colleagues from across the state - all Democrats - to co-sponsor her bill.
After Equality Florida began its lobbying effort on the bill in late-March, four state representatives - all Democrats - also signed on. However, the lack of a single Republican co-sponsor prevented the bill from moving forward.
(Republican State Representative Faye Culp of Tampa, a co-sponsor of Skidmore's 2007 bill, informed PBCHRC that she would not sponsor the 2008 bill "since the addition of 'gender identity or expression' ... will make the bill even more difficult to get a hearing and ... makes it very unclear.")
Despite the united efforts of so many organizations and individuals, the House took no action on the Skidmore bill
Still, more than 25% of the members of the Florida House of Representatives are now on record supporting GLBT-inclusive civil rights laws
Kudos to Representative Skidmore and her legislative assistant Aaron Blye for their valiant efforts.
Senator Deutch, Senator Atwater and Representative Skidmore have all asked the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council to meet with them after the session ends to discuss strategy for 2009.
Hopefully, legislative leaders, working with GLBT organizations, activists and allies, will adopt a unified strategy to advance comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in 2009.
Judge Rand Hoch (retired)