Publisher’s Perspective: Room to grow

By : Tom Dyer
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TomDyerHeadshotWhich high profile Orlando area politico said the following?

As an elected official as a public figure I figured out a long time ago that you only have so many chips to play. And you play them in the areas that mean the most to you and where you can make the biggest difference.

 

And I’ll be candid with you. I’m passionate on the subject of racial equality. I’m not passionate on the subject of [LGBT  equality]. That is partly because I am not sufficiently exposed, aware, educated. And it is partly because I truly have a hard time believing that the discrimination is as serious in your case.

If you guessed Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, you’d be wrong. These statements were instead made by then-Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin in a groundbreaking and disarmingly honest interview with Watermark back in 1995.

Chapin has since become an outspoken champion of LGBT civil rights. But the comments she made 17 years ago may provide insight into the journey of her most recent successor as the most powerful elected official in Central Florida.

After winning office in November 2010, Jacobs endorsed a countywide human rights ordinance and benefits for domestic partners of county employees. So activists were befuddled late last year when Jacobs distanced herself from the City of Orlando’s domestic partner registry initiative; this despite or in reaction to prodding by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie that dual registries would be effective and efficient.

The rights conferred health care and funeral decisions, hospital and jail visitation are neither controversial nor likely to be abused. A countywide registry would cost almost nothing to implement. And it would mean that couples living in Orlando could expect their partnership to be honored at hospitals and funeral homes in, say, Winter Park, or elsewhere within the county.

With the city’s registry scheduled to take effect in just a few days, the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee (OADO) organized a Jan. 9 town hall meeting to pressure Jacobs to act. Hours before that meeting, and without consulting with representatives from the LGBT community, Jacobs made an ill-advised statement to reporters questioning the need for a registry and suggesting that visitation and other essential rights could be accomplished more effectively with a universal form.

Although Jacobs equivocated by saying that she was still evaluating options, OADO bristled with a press release accusing her of aligning with anti-gay activist John Stemberger to kill the county registry. Jacobs took offense, countering that OADO had attacked her integrity and simply misunderstood her deliberative process.

By the weekend, both sides had stepped back from what the Orlando Sentinel called a combative policy fight. OADO noted that media posturing had been unproductive and issued an invitation to re-engage in a constructive dialog. Jacobs cautioned that her research was incomplete, but acknowledged that at this point she believes a DPR ordinance would be helpful. She promised to bring it before the Board of County Commissioners for consideration.

Neither side apologized for the strident back and forth, though both contributed. OADO never claimed that Jacobs sought advice from John Stemberger, but their press release (Mayor Teresa Jacobs Aligns with Anti-Gay Activist) raised the implication.

OADO also suggested Jacobs had previously taken a stand on the issue by quoting my August 2010 interview with her. We need something that makes it official that some relationships are bona fide relationships, Jacobs said, and that’s where I think the idea of domestic partnerships or civil unions have more standing. OADO conveniently deleted her qualifying follow-up: Maybe that’s the registry you’re talking about, but I haven’t spent a lot of time on this and I don’t want to give you a definitive answer on a registry until I’ve thought it through.

For her part, Jacobs can hardly blame OADO for reacting when she cut off dialogue and then told reporters that a registry may not be necessary. OADO is to be applauded for knowing when to stop on the advocacy gas. Activists in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota will need that same energetic focus if they are to follow Orlando’s lead and obtain registries for their communities (see story p. 13).

After touting a human rights ordinance and partner benefits, Jacobs’ inexplicable about-face on this logical and non-controversial next-step toward LGBT equality had many of us scrambling to connect the dots. Cynics suggested the Republican up-and-comer was solidifying her conservative cred for a future run at higher office. Others like me pointed to her troubling insensitivity on same-sex marriage and gay adoption. We remain concerned that this talented and inspiring public servant still doesn’t get it when it comes to the value of cultivating connected-ness and human dignity, or her important role in that process.

But I am hopeful that, like Linda Chapin, Teresa Jacobs is on a journey. Back in 2010 she told me, Sometimes in life our beliefs are challenged, and most of us will use that as an opportunity to assess our belief systems.

Fair warning she also said, I’d rather get it done right than get it done fast.

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