As Folio Weekly reported last week, there is a move afoot to extend the city’s anti-discrimination laws to include gays and lesbians (http://bit.ly/wj9XOY). Such a move is long overdue. Jacksonville is the only major metro area in Florida that doesn’t protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered residents from blatant, targeted discrimination. It remains legal to fire, evict or refuse to serve someone simply because of their sexual orientation.
In that regard, the Bold New City of the South trails the U.S. military, 21 states and even conservative icons like Bill O’Reilly and Dick Cheney — all of whom have renounced discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Some in the local LGBT community are hopeful the city’s first black mayor — who frankly promised to support gay and lesbian equality if elected — will get behind the effort and urge the City Council to adopt broader anti-discrimination laws, as recommended by the city’s Human Rights Commission. But Brown himself has been mum on the issue, and there is reason for skepticism. Case in point: the keynote speaker at last Friday’s Martin Luther King breakfast. The annual event, which the city took over two years ago when the Chamber of Commerce decided it could no longer afford it, costs some $66,000 to put on — most of which the city recoups through sponsorships and ticket revenues. Nonetheless, it’s a signature event; one that Mayor Brown himself has a hand in organizing. As mayoral spokesperson Angela Spears noted, he helped select Dr. Bernice King as the keynote speaker. “The mayor is close friends with the King family,” Spears explained, “and … this is who the mayor suggested.”
Unfortunately, Bernice King, despite being the daughter of a beloved Civil Rights icon, is also a bigot. She led a hugely controversial march in 2004, calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. She also spent several years as an elder at an Atlanta megachurch whose pastor, Eddie Long, frequently mocked homosexuals, and offered a “sexual reorientation” program to “cure” them. (Such sermons are less in evidence since 2010, when Long was himself accused of sexual misconduct with several young male parishioners — claims that were ultimately settled out of court.)
Bernice King’s anti-gay posture has been publicly condemned by members of her father’s inner circle, who observe that one of her father’s closest advisers was gay, and that her mother, Coretta Scott King, was a staunch supporter of gay rights. (Denouncing a proposed constitutional ban on gay unions, she noted, “banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay-bashing.”) Bernice King’s brother Dexter specifically cited her anti-gay activism in a lawsuit critical of her management of the King family estate, calling it a clear departure from their father’s legacy and a step along “a very dangerous road.”
When asked about Bernice King’s anti-gay activism, Spears acknowledged, “I’ve heard about it.” But she declined to provide a statement from the mayor addressing either his thoughts about King’s activism or what message her selection as keynote speaker might send to Jacksonville’s gay and lesbian community.
In case Mayor Brown is curious on that point, here’s one resident’s (unsolicited) take:
I am writing to express my concerns with our new mayor and his choice to endorse such a hateful anti-gay individual as Bernice King. I have seen the Mayor doing TV spots welcoming her to OUR city of Jacksonville. How many of my tax dollars are going to enrich this hate-monger? … Is this the kind of treatment the LGBT community will have to look forward to over the next three & a half years?
That remains to be seen. Mayor Brown has a lot on his plate, and he probably doesn’t relish the idea of tackling the city’s hidebound leaders and its conservative churches (from which, it must be said, Brown himself hails) in order to fight for LGBT equality. But if he truly believes, as he’s said close to a half-million times, in “moving the city forward,” Brown needs to push Jacksonville beyond its discriminatory, backwater boundaries, into the 21st century. The city’s business leaders know how important it is to appeal to a diverse, educated workforce — indeed, many local companies already extend benefits and equal protections to their gay and lesbian employees. Those companies will back the mayor if he leads on this issue, and so will the overwhelming number of people who believe in fairness and equality. To the extent that the mayor is still not convinced, he might consider this line from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s landmark December speech (http://bit.ly/xB9iGB) on LGBT rights.
“Leadership by definition means being out in front of your people when it is called for. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading your people to do the same. Be on the right side of history.”