As of August 2014, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest civil rights organization in the United States working to achieve equality for LGBT Americans, acknowledges 200+ cities and counties across the US who prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity/ expression in both the public and private sector. The city of Jacksonville and Duval County are currently not on that list.
An HRO, or Human Rights Ordinance, is a policy passed on the local level (city or county) to prohibit discrimination based on certain characteristics. These policies often ban discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment. Jacksonville’s current policy bans discrimination based on race, religion, sex, disability, ethnicity, national origin and marital status. In 2012, our City Council failed to pass two separate measures to extend employment protections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Afterwards, Jacksonville made national headlines as being one of the few cities, at that time, to defeat such a measure.
Jacksonville experienced immediate backlash when the software developer Pantheon decided not to relocate their headquarters here, and many Wells Fargo executives refused to move to the city after the corporation purchased Wachovia Bank at about the same time. Now, almost three years later, the city of Jacksonville and Duval County made national headlines again that are shameful and disappointing: Just as Florida became the 36th state to legalize same-sex marriage, the Duval, Clay and Baker County Clerks stopped performing all marriage ceremonies at their courthouses, simply in an effort to avoid marrying same-sex couples.
In response to the clerks’ decision, many Duval County couples opted to wed in a mass ceremony and celebration in Hemming Park on January 10, 2015. In what some might consider an ironic twist, however, these same couples can still be legally fired for displaying wedding photos at their place of employment, denied housing, or asked leave a restaurant because of their sexual orientation.
According to a recent Gallup poll, one of the challenges with passing local protections is that a majority of Americans mistakenly believe it is already illegal to fire or refuse to hire someone, deny housing, and/or deny public accommodations to LGBT people.
Hoping to better educate their members as to why an expanded ordinance will help boost economic growth for the city, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce West Council invited local activist Chevara Orrin, from We Are Straight Allies (WASA), to speak at their monthly luncheon in January in order to educate their members on the progress being made across the country to successfully add protections for the LGBT community at a local and national level. The founder of the WASA organization, Orrin has spent the past two years working to educate and raise awareness about the very real challenges and discrimination faced by the LGBT community.
“Jacksonville is the only large city in the state of Florida without an HRO and it is vital for our local economy that we pass a Human Rights Ordinance,” she maintains. In fact, the HRC gave Jacksonville a 20-rating (out of 100) on their 2014 Municipal Equality Index (MEI). The MEI compares the laws, policies, and services of municipalities and rates them on the basis of their inclusivity of LGBT people who live and work there. When compared to other cities in Florida, Jacksonville is second to last, only slightly better than Port St. Lucie, as being a just place for the LGBT community to live and work.
There are plenty of community leaders like Pat Geraghty, chairman and CEO of Florida Blue, who understand why an expanded HRO is good for business. Geraghty says, “I believe that engaged employees are a key ingredient for a business to be successful. Internal diversity within the workforce helps businesses better understand who they serve, and allows the focus to be on the work and not on definitions that limit inclusion.”
Geraghty joined the WASA campaign in 2013 and has co-sponsored legislation that would protect LGBT citizens statewide. Florida Blue, Florida’s largest health insurance provider, is considered one of the best places to work for an LGBT employee. They have consistently received 100 on the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) several years in a row. The CEI is the national benchmarking tool on fair corporate policies and practices pertinent to LGBT employees. In 2015, 89% of all Fortune 500 Companies offer protection from discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation, while 66% of those also offer protections based on a person’s gender identity/expression.
One of the West Council members voiced their “concern about cross-dressers in the workplace.” These types of comments demonstrate the overall lack of sensitivity the transgender community faces daily at best, coupled with experiencing the highest rates of targeted violence, or suicide, at worst and speaks to why the transgender community is often overlooked. Data from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 78% of transgender Americans say they’ve experienced workplace discrimination at some point in their career. Because so few people personally know a transgender person, it can be hard to understand what it means to be transgender.
However, few Americans, including the LGBT community, are aware that transgender employees are protected against being fired because of his or her status as a transgender person in all fifty states, as set forth in the landmark decision in the 2012 Macy v. Holder case, brought by the Transgender Law Center. “Transgender people are a part of our workplaces and neighborhoods – and they need to be able to use the restroom safely and be left alone, just like everyone else,” says Orrin.
Steve Halverson, CEO of Haskell Company and fellow WASA campaign participant, explains that having an expanded HRO is important for Jacksonville to become more competitive in the marketplace. “To succeed, businesses have to compete for talent – all talent – and provide a safe and welcoming work environment,” he says. “We are disadvantaged when we create an impression that our community is hostile to the LGBT community. People want to live and work in communities that are perceived as fair and tolerant. Jacksonville needs to be that place.”
While nothing about nondiscrimination laws changes state and local criminal statutes that would outlaw predatory activity or crimes targeted towards the LGBT community, they demonstrate to companies considering a move Jacksonville that our city is taking steps necessary to become a more inclusive place for all of its citizens.
Photos: Dan Bagan, EQ3 Media