Lee County Commissioners voted Tuesday in favor of an updated anti-workplace discrimination policy for county employees. Despite months of lobbying from advocates, the new policy does not include explicit protections for LGBTQ workers.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Lee County Commissioners heard public testimony from advocates, including some current and former county workers, in favor of adopting a workplace anti-discrimination policy that explicitly includes protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. However, the staff-approved policy given the green light by Lee County Commissioners does not specifically mention LGBTQ workers, and advocates worry it still leaves those employees vulnerable.
Local advocate and founder of the Fort Myers LGBTQ youth center, Visuality, Inc., Arlene Goldberg spoke before the vote. “I talked about how there really are no federal protections for us even though the county believes there are federal protections for us,” said Goldberg.
“And with the Trump administration in office right now, they’re rescinding a lot of Obama’s executive orders and laws. So, we’re not feeling safe here in our own county.”
More than six months ago, Goldberg began lobbying county commissioners and administrators to update the county’s anti-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Goldberg was a plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that led a federal judge to strike down Florida’s same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional. That ruling allowed Goldberg to be listed as the spouse of Carol Goldwasser who died in March 2014. Goldwasser and Goldberg’s relationship spanned nearly five decades and Goldwasser had been a Lee County employee for nearly 17 years before retiring in 2006. Goldberg said that throughout that time, she and Goldwasser felt they had to hide their relationship.
“She (Goldwasser) was an employee of Lee County government as I was, and always fearful that she could get fired or harassed because of her sexual orientation and we stayed in the closet because of that,” said Goldberg.
Goldberg is also co-founder of the The Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce for the region’s LGBT community and LGBT-friendly businesses, which held an inaugural ribbon cutting in April. Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann was the lone elected official to attend that ribbon cutting.
Before Tuesday’s unanimous vote, Commissioner Mann asked for clarification from county attorney Richard Wesch.
“I need your absolute assurance and staking your professional reputation on it, after the review that your office has done with outside council as well, that the language that you’re suggesting we adopt today in this item will in fact absolutely isolate us from any challenge of discrimination of any type,” said Mann.
County Attorney Wesch expressed certainty that language in the modified policy was broad enough to cover LGBTQ employees without explicitly naming them. As precedent, he cited the 2011 case of Glenn v Brumby, in which a federal judge ruled that the firing of a transgender woman in Georgia over her gender identity violated an Equal Protection clause against sex-based discrimination.
“The way we’re codifying that in the language that we’re suggesting to you this morning is to be over inclusive rather than to specifically call out words and phrases and terms that may change, modify, amend over time,” said Wesch. “We set the bar as high as legally permissible.”
Arlene Goldberg said she was disappointed with the decision. “I wanted to get up and I wanted to say, ‘You’re wrong. You’re absolutely wrong,’” said Goldberg.
“Those protections don’t really protect us. It depends on what judge you get. It’s up to the judge. So there’s no firm protections. There’s nothing in writing. It’s about the written word and we don’t have that.”
Back in January, Cape Coral City Council members adopted an anti-discrimination policy that covers LGBT city employees.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are 10 Florida counties including Sarasota and 29 other municipalities, including North Port and Venice, which have adopted some form of ordinance protections that cover LGBT workers.
Goldberg said already begun working with Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group, to bring a human rights ordinance to Lee County that would protect against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.