Publisher’s Perspective: The glory of the open mind

By : Tom Dyer
Comments: 1

TomDyerHeadshotTeresa Jacobs was elected Mayor of Orange County last November. Soon thereafter, and with Jacobs’ meaningful behind-the-scenes endorsement, the county passed a comprehensive human rights ordinance that protects gay, lesbian and transgender residents from discrimination. Then, just months after being sworn in, Jacobs presided over the county commission’s near-unanimous approval of domestic partner benefits for gay county employees.

This places Orange County in line with Orlando and progressive municipalities like Tallahassee, Gainesville, Tampa and Broward and Miami-Dade counties. And it helps set a pitch-perfect tone for Jacobs’ term as the most powerful elected official in Central Florida: tight-fisted fiscal oversight after a recession, coupled with enlightened social policy for an evolving community.

I endorsed Jacobs’ opponent for Orange County Mayor, citing what I believed to be her limited view of LGBT equality. How can I be complicit in governance by someone who sees me as less than equal, less than fully human? I wrote back in October.

Several have asked whether I’m now willing to issue a mea culpa. I don’t think that’s warranted. But I want to express my admiration for Jacobs, and my growing confidence in her leadership.

In a short time, and in the context of issues critical to the LGBT community, Jacobs has displayed something precious in political discourse: a willingness to listen, consider different perspectives and (gasp!) change her mind.

I interviewed Jacobs last August. Back then, her opinions on LGBT matters were confused and uninspiring.

I struggle with the idea of requirements for private employers, especially in this economy, she said about a rights ordinance. I don’t think we need more regulation, so I would set that aside in the ‘largely undecided’
camp.

Even more equivocal was her statement regarding partner benefits.

I’m still wrestling with the issue, she said. Philosophically I think we should do it. But I want to know the cost, and I want to ensure these are bona fide relationships.

Jacobs clearly considered these matters, even though they were likely not critical to her election. She spoke with her staff, local LGBT activists like Mary Meeks, and I suspect her family she has four children with ages ranging from Will & Grace to Glee.

The result: clarity and a willingness to lead. Contrast Jacobs’ earlier statements with this one following passage of partner benefits last month.

I believe this policy is fair, she said. All people deserve to be treated compassionately. I think tolerance is something this community can do better.

Most politicians won’t admit they are a work in progress. Some never change their minds at all! We suffer the tragic consequences of these fragile egos. Think weapons of mass destruction.

Those whose minds change tend to fall into two camps. Vacillators, like former Gov. Charlie Crist, are opportunists with shallow rudders and little leadership capability. Contemplators, like Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, take longer to change course. They view issues from a multitude of perspectives, but the resulting decisions tortured as they may be are more likely to be endorsed by history.

Consider Lincoln, who at one time thought slaves should be repatriated to a different country. It took three years of Civil War before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring slaves to be free Americans. This could hardly be characterized as the decision of a weak or uncertain man.

When it comes to LGBT equality, Sen. John McCain is a vacillator and President Obama is a contemplator. In fact, Obama’s statement that his views on same-sex marriage are constantly evolving could be a mantra for the contemplative leader.

I struggle with this, he elaborated some months ago. I have friends and people who work for me who are in strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. They are extraordinary people, and this is something they care deeply about.

Can there be any doubt where his internal debate will lead, or whether it will be on the right side of history?

Jacobs is on a similar journey, and I think she would be the first to admit that. I disagree with her my way or the highway handling of an arts center whose time has come. But the steps she has taken on LGBT issues give me confidence that she is the right kind of leader for our community one centered enough to reconsider positions previously taken, and strong enough to value what is right over what is pragmatic.

During our interview, I asked Jacobs how she would counsel a gay teen with disapproving parents.

Sometimes in life our beliefs are challenged, she said. Most of us will use that as an opportunity to reassess our belief systems. When faced with this, most parents will choose to love their child and recognize that maybe they’ve been wrong. It won’t be easy, and it may take them a little time, but my advice would be to have the conversation.

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