On Feb. 14, Jacksonville’s LGBT community finally won protection from housing, employment and public accommodation discrimination. The fight to pass an inclusive human rights ordinance pitted Christian against Christian, small business against small business, donors against voters and voters against each other. There was a strong undercurrent of fear that Jacksonville would once again make a national splash for intolerance by remaining the only major city to never extend the same protections to LGBT people that other groups, such as the disabled, minorities, women and people of faith, have long held.

That afternoon, HRO supporters milled around Hemming Park amid heart-shaped red balloons, making signs, sharing stickers and gearing up for the final countdown. They’d endured blistering commentary that exhibited the worst of ignorance and bigotry, including some from members of council, and a seemingly endless barrage of justifications for their being treated differently from their straight, cisgender counterparts, many rooted in Bible verses that progressive Christians would prefer to not hear again. The mood was optimistic, but also weary; weary of struggling for basic rights that others take for granted, weary of defending their place in this community, their value to this city, and their right to pursue life, liberty and happiness without hindrance at work, at home or in
public accommodation.

Typically, the fireworks on any given bill have long since become embers by the time it reaches the full City Council for a vote. HRO was an exception. With an overflow crowd looking on, councilmembers hashed out the old arguments yet again.

As in the past, a few opponents on council dusted off that “gay friend” they’ve probably been hiding in a closet somewhere to justify their position. Also as in the past, some grandstanded on the basis of religion. Also as in the past, the bill’s cosponsors, Councilmen Tommy Hazouri, Jim Love and Aaron Bowman, defended the bill adequately and, at times, admirably. Emerging as a strong and persuasive voice of support was Councilman Reginald Brown, who stirred the crowd to shouts of agreement when he opposed an amendment to strike protections for the transgender community.

Citing his military experience, Brown said, “If [transgender people] are willing to die for you, for this flag, for this country, why would we leave any soldier behind?”

In the end, they did not get left behind. By a vote of 12-6, Jacksonville’s City Council voted to amend the HRO to protect people from employment, public accommodation and housing discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and expression. Businesses with fewer than 15 employees are exempt, as are religious entities. It was a victory a long time in coming, and as the crowd spilled out of chambers, their joy was palpable.

Afterward, in Hemming Park, a few hundred revelers hugged, kissed, danced and cheered; it was perhaps only then that this day started to feel like Valentine’s Day for many.

When Mayor Lenny Curry announced shortly thereafter that he would let the bill become law without his signature, it was official: On Feb. 14, 2017, it turned out that love can win in Jacksonville.