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Angelo Serrano stopped by Office Depot at 2205 SW 27th Ave. in Miami last December. He wasn’t looking to make a statement about sexuality or politics. He just wanted to use the photocopy machine. But while he was in the store, Serrano says, employees made “derogatory comments and gestures concerning me and to me because I am homosexual.” He was called “faggot and muffin,” with the approval of the copy center manager, says Serrano, 52. Alexandra Rodil, 27, says her sexual orientation cost her a job. Just four months into what looked like a promising career at Rosen Associates, a Miami real estate firm, Rodil was fired after she asked her boss if she could be filmed at work as part of a documentary about lesbian life. “A total shock,” says Rodil of her October 2000 dismissal. Serrano and Rodil are two of 70 Miami-Dade County residents who have used the grievance mechanism of the so-called gay rights amendment to seek relief for alleged discrimination on the job, in housing or in a public accommodation. In December 1998, a bitterly divided Miami-Dade County Commission narrowly voted to add the words “sexual orientation” to Chapter 11A, the county’s Human Rights Ordinance barring various types of discrimination. Enforcement of the law is handled by the county’s Equal Opportunity Board (EOB), a quasi-judicial body that hears complaints and decides on appropriate relief. Miami-Dade’s provision is similar to one enacted by the Broward County Commission three years earlier. The Miami-Dade sexual orientation provision provides substantive protection to a class that has no remedy under state or federal laws. Existing state and federal statutes cover discrimination based on race and religion; no such protection is extended to sexual orientation. For Serrano and Rodil, at least, the law has worked. “Without the law in place, there would have been no leverage,” says Charles Radlauer, a Miami Springs solo attorney who represented Serrano in negotiating a confidential settlement of his client’s complaint against Delray Beach-based Office Depot. The complaint was heard by the EOB. Rodil also reached a settlement recently with her former employer. While it has helped a small number of people win relief in discrimination cases, observers say, the ordinance has hardly abolished discrimination against gay people. On the other hand, it hasn’t had any noticeable negative impact on Miami-Dade business, housing, schools or courts since it took effect in December 1998. Certainly, none of the dire predictions by opponents that it would foster an orgy of debauchery has come about. “The law doesn’t necessarily affect human behavior, but provides an educative mission,” says University of Miami law professor Bruce Winick, who served as legal strategist for passage of an earlier ordinance protecting gays from discrimination. “It has important symbolic value.” Real or symbolic, the law remains a flashpoint for political controversy. On Sept. 10, county voters will vote on ballot question 14, a proposal to delete the protection based on sexual orientation from the ordinance, which also protects people based on race, color, religion, ancestry, sex, national origin, age, disability, marital status and familial status. The effort to repeal the amendment is being led by a coalition of Christian right and other politically conservative groups, spearheaded by an umbrella organization called Take Back Miami-Dade. That organization’s communications director, Eladio Jose Armesto, has said that homosexuals are sick people who suffer from unnatural “same sex attraction” and are undeserving of special protection under the ordinance. Armesto contends that if the sexual orientation clause is not repealed, groups in support of other sexual practices, such as masochism and incest, also will demand civil rights protection. Armesto and other representatives of Take Back Miami-Dade did not return phone calls for comment. Opposing the repeal effort are a host of political and community leaders, business groups, labor unions, teachers and physicians groups, socially liberal churches and civil rights organizations. They argue that rescinding a legal protection that safeguards a significant segment of the county’s residents from discrimination would not only be morally wrong but bad for the economy. “Suffice it to say that the Democratic National Committee has already started to make noise about reconsidering Miami-Dade as the site of the 2004 [national political] convention,” says Peter Roulhac, vice president and director of community development for First Union/Wachovia National Bank in Miami and chairman-elect of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. “The effect of repeal would be to send a very negative message to the world and nation as to the type of world-class community we are wanting to become.” In recent weeks, the debate over the referendum has become bogged down in a quagmire all too familiar to Miami-Dade voters, with allegations of election-related fraud. Four people have been arrested on allegations that the repeal campaign had turned in petitions containing fraudulently notarized signatures. Those charged in the probe included the local head of the Christian Coalition, who has been working with Take Back Miami-Dade. Leaders of “No to Discrimination/SAVE Dade,” the umbrella group opposing repeal of the sexual orientation amendment, have alleged that thousands of signatures collected by Take Back Miami-Dade and the Christian Coalition may be forgeries or duplications. As Election Day nears, the rhetoric has heated up, especially from the pro-repeal forces. Take Back Miami-Dade recently circulated fliers claiming that “Martin Luther King would be OUTRAGED! If he knew homosexualist extremists were abusing the civil rights movement to get special rights on their sexual behavior.” The civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King, issued a written statement charging the pro-repeal group with distorting King’s message. “I appeal to everybody who believes in Martin Luther King’s views to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbians and gay people,” she said. Still, many black churches have joined Take Back Miami-Dade in its efforts to repeal the sexual orientation amendment, including the African American Council of Christian Clergy, which claims a membership of 300 mostly Baptist ministers. Jorge Mursuli, Florida director of People for the American Way and a veteran of the gay rights struggle in Miami-Dade, says the vote next month confronts voters with a critical decision. “We’re either a big grown-up city or we’re not” is how he frames the issue. BRYANT’S WARNINGS OF SODOM The history of the sexual orientation rights ordinance in Miami-Dade is long and colorful. The first version, sponsored in 1977 by County Commissioner Ruth Shack, added four words to the categories deserving of protection under the existing human rights ordinance: “sexual or affectional preference.” Outraged by the commission’s actions, Christian conservative groups, led by singer and former Miss America Anita Bryant, immediately launched a “save our children” repeal movement that linked enactment of the ordinance to aiding child molesters. Through petition, the groups put the issue on the ballot as a referendum, and county voters struck down the amendment. But the repeal movement, and Bryant’s fundamentalist attacks on homosexuals, galvanized gay rights activism around the country, which eventually led to the passage of civil rights laws protecting sexual orientation in dozens of U.S. cities and states. In Miami-Dade, the issue did not resurface until the 1990s. Miami Beach passed an ordinance protecting gay people from discrimination in 1992. Broward County passed its amendment barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1995. Last fall, a small group of opponents, organized as Equal Rights Not Special Rights and vowing to repeal the ordinance, launched a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot. But 18 percent of the 66,304 signatures turned in were ruled invalid, and the drive failed. In 1996, Mursuli and other activists, under the banner of SAVE Dade (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) began lobbying the Miami-Dade County Commission to add the words “sexual orientation” to the human rights ordinance. The first attempt failed in 1997. But in 1998, a bitterly divided commission approved the change by one vote. “Opponents predicted that gay people would file out into the street naked, and it would be like Sodom and Gomorrah,” Mursuli recalls. “But all that’s happened is that 60 some people have filed complaints.” Since the amended ordinance took effect in December 1998, the average annual number of discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation has been 25. From Oct. 1, 2001, through last week, there were 34 complaints, or 30 percent of all discrimination complaints filed under Chapter 11A. More that 80 percent of the formal complaints involving sexual orientation have dealt with employment issues. The rest alleged problems stemming from housing or public accommodation. Although the EOB has received no complaints in which a heterosexual has used the ordinance to allege discrimination based on sexual orientation, the law would equally apply in such cases, says EOB executive director Marcos Regalado. Many of the complaints before the EOB are not filed directly by individuals, but come as referrals from the ACLU or other civil rights organizations. Once a formal complaint is made, Regalado assigns EOB investigators to take statements from the charging party, the respondents, and witnesses. While statements are not taken under oath, the EOB does have subpoena power, says Terrence Smith, an assistant county attorney assigned to the board. Following an investigation, Regalado reviews the reports and, in consultation with his investigative staff, issues a finding of cause or no cause. The losing party then has 10 days to seek an administrative appeal before the EOB’s 13-member board, a volunteer group appointed by the County Commission. The board hears testimony from the parties involved, and can call new witnesses who have not been interviewed by staff. The current chair of the board is attorney Lyra Logan, vice president and general counsel of the Florida Education Fund, a quasi-public group created by the state to aid disadvantaged minorities. Findings issued by the board are final unless either party appeals to Miami-Dade Circuit Court within 30 days; from there, cases can be appealed to the 3rd District Court of Appeal. If a party doesn’t comply with the board’s order, the board or the complainant can ask the Circuit Court to order compliance. None of the board’s 70 sexual orientation cases, however, have been taken to Circuit Court. At every step along the way, the EOB encourages mediation between the parties, Smith says. “That gives us a chance to work with employers as well as employees,” he says. “If an employer doesn’t treat that person in a respectful manner, a good employee can be lost.” The Broward County Commission added sexual orientation to the classes protected under its Human Rights Act in 1995, but the provisions for relief are used less than they are in Miami-Dade. Fred Behul, an attorney in the Human Rights Division of Broward’s Office of Equal Opportunity, says that only about 25 charges have been filed in seven years. TURNOUT COULD BE KEY Despite the anti-repeal side’s apparent advantage in organizational strength, the Sept. 10 vote is expected to be close, especially if turnout is low. “We believe that if every registered voter voted, we would do OK,” Mursuli says. “The problem is getting folks out. And polls don’t do a good job of taking the temperature on this issue.” Indeed, in May, No to Discrimination/ SAVE Dade conducted a poll that found solid support more than 60 percent for preserving the sexual orientation amendment among all racial and ethnic voting groups. But Mursuli frets that while many voters publicly support gay rights, they may express different feelings in the secrecy of the voting booth. On the other hand, the repeal movement may have a harder time winning this year than it did in 1977 when Anita Bryant organized her successful effort, says Florida Atlantic University media studies professor Fred Fejes, who’s working on a history of the gay and lesbian community in South Florida. One big difference is that the 1977 ordinance would have affected a powerful interest group, Catholic schools and the parents of their students. But Chapter 11A exempts religious institutions, Fejes notes. Plus, back in the 1970s, the gay and lesbian movement was small and unorganized. “It has gained lot of experience and visibility since then,” he says. Finally, unlike Bryant’s savvy efforts, Take Back Miami-Dade has failed, in Fejes’ view, to mount an effective repeal campaign so far, having done little or no voter mobilization. All agree that the stakes are high, at least symbolically. “Repealing the ordinance would be a step backward,” Fejes says. “It would not send anyone back into the closet, but the environment would be seen as more hostile.” Removing the protection granted sexual orientation, argues Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the ACLU’s Miami chapter, “would be to decide as a community that there is an identifiable group of people, discriminated against historically, and single them out and say they are not entitled to protection. That is a dangerous legal precedent, empowering a majority to vote out of the law a minority they don’t like.” SHE SAID, HE SAID After she was fired, Alexandra Rodil filed a complaint on her own with EOB and later sought legal assistance from the ACLU and from a private attorney in pursuing the matter. In investigating the complaint, EOB investigators took statements from Rodil and her bosses at Rosen Associates and gathered various documents, including personnel files and e-mail messages. Clifford Rosen, president of Rosen Associates, and William Thompson, the firm’s marketing director, denied that Rodil was fired because she revealed she was a lesbian. Rather, according to the EOB investigative report on the case, “the respondent � contended that [Rodil] was terminated for lack of performance; specifically, an unwillingness to perform secretarial duties and negative and selfish attitude toward the company’s rules. “The respondent further stated,” the report continued, “that in addition to her performance, the dot-com project for which [Rodil] had been hired was terminated and her services were no longer needed.” But Rodil, who is currently unemployed, says her dismissal was a complete surprise, especially since she had received no reprimands or complaints from her supervisors and seemed to be on a fast track at the firm. All that changed when she revealed that she was gay, she contends. Rosen told her that allowing the documentary makers to shoot their film about lesbians at the Rosen Associates office would be disruptive and jeopardize security for his valuable office art collection, Rodil says. “I thought his reaction was rather paranoid and most definitely odd,” Rodil wrote in a statement for the EOB. She was fired two days after she says Rosen refused to allow filming at the office. After an 18-month investigation, the EOB sided with Rodil. In a decision written by Regalado and issued in May, the EOB rejected Rosen Associates’ defense, saying that “if [Rodil's] behavior was unacceptable since the beginning of her employment, there was ample time to terminate her services. “The record indicates a causal connection between her announcement on Oct. 25 [2000] that she is gay and her termination from employment two days later.” The EOB recommended that Rodil be reinstated with no loss of salary and seniority and be paid back wages with 11 percent interest. Rather than appeal to the EOB board, lawyers for Rosen Associates met with Rodil’s attorney, Amarillys Garcia-Perez, a Coral Gables, Fla., solo attorney, and the case was settled. The terms of the agreement are confidential. Clifford Rosen did not return a phone call seeking comment. Rodil, who is looking for a job in advertising, is satisfied with the outcome of her EOB case even though she didn’t get her job back. “For me it was a victory, a partial victory,” she says. The human rights ordinance, however, did nothing to help her film career. After she was fired by Rosen Associates, Rodil participated anyway in the documentary film, later released under the title “The Lavender Coast.” “My partner and I were filmed,” she laments, “but we got left on the cutting room floor.”

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