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Activist Says Lee County’s Revised Anti-discrimination Policy Leaves out LGBT Employees

Courtesy of Arlene Goldberg

For the past several months, staff have been working to update Lee County’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy.  A local activist who got an early look at the proposal says it still leaves LGBT employees vulnerable to discrimination. 

More than six months ago, local LGBT activist Arlene Goldberg began lobbying county commissioners and administrators to update the county’s anti-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity.  Last week, Goldberg said she met with Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais for an early look at a draft revision of the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy.

“And much to my disappointment, the new policy did not include sexual orientation or gender identification,” said Goldberg.  “They said that they don’t discriminate and they wouldn’t’ fire anybody for sexual orientation or gender identification.”

County staff were unavailable to comment in time for this story, but Goldberg said County Manager Desjarlais told her that explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBT workers are included at the federal level and are not needed at the local level.  According to Goldberg, that’s not exactly the case.

“Just because the EEOC under the Obama Administration provided some good rulings protecting LGBT federal employees, that some courts have cited, that doesn’t mean everyone is protected,” said Goldberg.  “And we don’t know that even these protections will stay in place under Trump...Just because some federal protections might exist for federal employees, that doesn’t mean courts or employers here in Florida will care.”

Her fight to add LGBT workplace protections for Lee County employees is a personal one for Goldberg.  She 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.
“Carol, when she worked for the county, was petrified that somebody would actually find out that she was part of the LGBT community,” said Goldberg.

“That was her thing, but the fact remains there are other employees like that also.  And that fear actually made her sicker because what she had was effected by stress.  So, she ended up going on disability, which she would have gone on anyway, but not as soon as she did.”

Goldberg went on to found an LGBT youth center in Fort Myers called Visuality, Inc.  Earlier this year she co-founded 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.

Cape Coral city council members adopted an anti-discrimination policy that covers LGBT city employees in January. 

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 going forward, she may advocate for Lee County to adopt a broader human rights ordinance that would ban discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment. 

Proposed revisions to Lee County’s Equal Employment Opportunity policy would have to be approved by county commissioners before taking effect.   Staff will present the proposed revision of employment policies to county commissioners at their regular board meeting on June 20.

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