Homo History: West Palm Beach Shows its True Colors

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Submitted photo.

"If one Christian commits rape, should all Christians be judged to be rapists?" 

That is what Glen Scriber, a gay West Palm Beach resident in 1994 asked in an opinion letter published by The Palm Beach Post on Dec. 14 of that year. 

The events unfolding at that time were a huge success story for South Florida's LGBT community. At the time, then West Palm Beach Mayor, Nancy Graham, had put before the city commission an "equal opportunity ordinance," an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation based on race, color, origin, religion, and sexual orientation. The inclusion of that last group of people was challenged radically by Christian conservative groups in the area.

The Palm Beach County Human Rights Council helped draft the ordinance. Palm Beach County had already put in place an ordinance in 1989 that prevented discrimination in housing for the LGBT population, but not employment. 

The ordinance was put into effect mid-1994, but it didn't take long before the West Palm Beach Christian Coalition voiced its opinion and gathered the necessary 1,500 signatures to send the ordinance to the polls to be voted upon by citizens. 

Their argument was that gay people are "choosing" to engage in their behavior and that the other groups mentioned were not.  Additionally, they went on to say that gays were not a group traditionally discriminated against and therefore their inclusion is unwarranted.

Bob Proper, then chairman of the West Palm Beach Chapter of the Christian Coalition led a very emotional campaign, distributing materials urging West Palm Beach voters to repeal the ordinance. These hand-outs condemned homosexual behavior, calling it "vulgar.” They went on to mention that "even when done consensually and in private, homosexual behavior has spill-over effects with public dimensions because it is self destructive, disproportionally disease ridden behavior."

Proper wrote an opinion letter to the Palm Beach Post where he claimed that if gays could work wherever they want, such as a daycare center, they could potentially spread dangerous diseases or even engage in lewd behavior, because according to him gays have up to 10 times as many partners as a "womanizer.” 

The aforementioned Glen Scriber opinion letter was a response to Proper's narrow-mindedness in assuming all gay people delve into the same illegal activities. Scriber had said "we are doctors and ditch diggers," and "conservatives and liberals," and that the city is making right in prohibiting this kind of prejudice. 

Then-Palm Beach County Commissioner, Carol Roberts, countered Proper's argument with a letter of her own published in the same newspaper. She claimed we would be taking a "giant step backwards" if voters chose to repeal this law.

Fortunately, on Jan. 10, 1995, 56 percent of West Palm Beach voters chose to keep the ordinance intact, the first time in Florida history that a Christian repeal effort was defeated by voters on the first attempt. 

No major effort against rights for the LGBT community here in South Florida has been successful since then. It really was the turning point for the community in Florida since it did create a chain reaction around the state where other municipalities and counties attempted to do something similar.   

By 2002, Palm Beach County commissioners adopted a similar ordinance, making the effort now county wide. Broward and Miami-Dade, famously, have similar laws in effect. In 2007, the City of West Palm Beach amended the ordinance to include transgender people.

The founder and current president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, Rand Hoch, wasn’t living in West Palm Beach at the time but still remembers the repeal effort. In fact, he didn’t believe they would win the fight and actually advised them to concentrate their efforts elsewhere. 

They didn’t listen to him. 

“West Palm Beach Mayor Nancy Graham, who was a Republican at the time, asked PBCHRC if she could head the campaign to defeat the repeal. She was -- and still is -- extremely passionate about equal rights for the lesbian and gay community,” he said. “Working together, Mayor Graham and PBCHRC put together an amazing coalition of civil rights and labor activists, Jewish community leaders, women's rights activists, seniors, neighborhood association members and individual citizens interested in equal rights for all. It was truly an incredible achievement.” 


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