BY PATRICIA MAZZEI
Gay-rights activists prepared for a political skirmish Tuesday at Miami-Dade County Hall. They wore matching T-shirts, arrived early and filled several rows of the commission chambers in support of legislation expanding protections to transgender people.
But no one — in the audience or on the dais — showed up in opposition.
Commissioners gave unanimous — though preliminary — approval to amending the Miami-Dade’s human-rights ordinance to ban discrimination on the base of “gender identity” and “gender expression.” The law applies to public places and government services, as well as to employment and housing in the county as a whole.
“This update that we’re working on would ensure very basic protections for a very vulnerable part of our community that many take for granted,” said Charo Valero, field organizer for SAVE, Miami-Dade’s leading gay-rights organization that has been pushing for the legislative change.
For an issue that has been contentious in the past — two commissioners tried to get it passed a year ago but had to back off — Tuesday’s vote was noteworthy for what it lacked. No one from the public said anything against it. Supporters didn’t even represent a majority of the speakers at the hearing; a larger crowd asked the county to press the state to reinstate a tax incentive for the film industry.
With a 10-0 vote, commissioners advanced the transgender-amendment proposal. Three board members — Lynda Bell, Xavier Suarez and Juan C. Zapata — were absent from the vote. Vice-Chairwoman Bell had cast the sole vote against the legislation when it first came up last year.
Bell lost reelection last month after being targeted by Miami-Dade and Florida Democrats in part because of that dissent. Her successor, Daniella Levine Cava, a proponent of the amendment, is scheduled to be sworn in Nov. 24.
Yet Bell was not the only one who stood in the way of the legislation in 2013. Sponsors Audrey Edmonson and Bruno Barreiro withdrew it after failing to garner enough behind-the-scenes support in the Health & Social Services Committee, whose members include Bell, Edmonson and Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Jean Monestime and Javier Souto. The makeup of that committee hasn’t changed.
In an apparent strategic move, Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa on Tuesday assigned the proposal to a different committee this time around — one that will be much friendlier to expanding the human-rights ordinance.
Two of the four members of the Public Safety & Animal Services Committee are sponsors Barreiro and Edmonson. A third, Sally Heyman, has also signed her name to the legislation in support. The fourth member is Esteban “Steve” Bovo.
A committee hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 12.
After the vote, activists filed out of the commission chambers and, minutes later, sent supporters an email titled, “A big win! BUT...” noting nothing has been finalized.
Among those in attendance was Tobias Packer, a local union executive and transgender man who said Miami-Dade’s lack of protections were on his mind when he was home-hunting.
“My landlord did a background check,” said Packer, 31. “Everything worked out. But I was really nervous. He was going to see I was transgender. He would have been within his right to deny me.”
Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director of Equality Florida, said the push for a statewide transgender law raises the stakes for the Miami-Dade debate.
“We think it’s important that, as the state takes a look at it, for Miami-Dade to show some leadership,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.