Recently that question came up when a proposed amendment to a homeowners' association agreement attempted to do just that -- define a family.
Below is how Rivermill, where my partner and I own a house in Western Lake Worth, has decided to define a family for certain purposes:
"Family shall mean one or more persons related by law, blood, adoption or marriage, but shall not exceed two people per bedroom, as delivered by the developer. Alternatively, a family may also be defined as persons living together in a domestic relationship and as in integrated single housekeeping unit, though not related by law, blood, adoption or marriage, but shall be deemed to constitute a family, provided that such alternative definition of family shall not exceed two persons."
Who knows what this convoluted definition really even means. I have a hard time deciphering it. But I think it's a bad idea when a community association starts trying to define what a family is, or isn't, for any purpose.
I take exception with the definition because being gay, this could theoretically be used against me and my family at some point, especially as it says "deemed." Who deems what a family is? The board? The property management company? A community vote?
"As for the Association's attempt to define family, it is my personal opinion that the Association is on shaky ground, which could lead to expensive litigation, depending on the specific fact pattern," said Rand Hoch, founder and president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
Now I know that this amendment wasn't put in place to exclude gays. It was put in place to regulate renters. But marriage laws in this country weren't developed to exclude gays either -- until gays wanted to be included. Then and only then did it become an issue.
Many seemingly irrelevant or innocuous laws have been used against the LGBT community and other minority groups despite their original intent.
Later in the amendment the board also added this -- presumably to cover their own asses:
"...the Association shall not discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, religion, national origin, familial status or physical or mental handicap..."
Notice anything missing? Yup, it doesn't include sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
"It appears that the Association has failed to consult a lawyer, since the proposed revisions appear to be in conflict with Palm Beach County's Fair Housing Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, handicap, sexual orientation age, marital status or gender identity or expression," Hoch said.
The above non-discrimination clause only includes those classes that are protected at the federal level. They could have gone above and beyond, or -- as Hoch pointed out -- matched what the county requires, but they chose not to.
So for federal purposes they did indeed cover their asses, but what they don't realize is that thanks to local organizations like the PBCHRC, we gays are protected -- at least in my home county.
The community did consult a lawyer, though, when they proposed these new amendments, proving that not all lawyers are created equal or well-versed in non-discrimination clauses.
"PBCHRC got the Palm Beach County Commission to amend the County's Fair Housing Ordinance in 1990 to prohibit housing discrimination based on 'sexual orientation.' The law is the oldest LGBT rights law in effect in Florida. We got it amended again in 2007 to prohibit discrimination based on 'gender identity or expression," Hoch explained.
"Violations of the Fair Housing Act may result in civil fines against the Association ranging from $5,000 to $25,000," he added. "Additionally, violations may subject the Association to litigation."
Unfortunately other counties across the state do not offer the same protections for LGBT people that Palm Beach County does. Florida has no housing protections for the LGBT community.
So this county ordinance isn't just for show. More than a decade ago -- long before gay rights were en vogue -- an unmarried gay couple settled a discrimination case against an apartment complex for $75,000.
Thankfully county law trumps the ignorance of a local community association. So while change at the state and federal level may move at a glacial pace sometimes, it is thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like the PBCHRC that change is happening at the local level -- then and now.
If gay couple were to move in to this community it appears they would have no choice but to "out" themselves to prove they are a family, according to those bylaws above.
So what I have to say to the board is this: Nobody has the right to define what my family is, or isn't -- not the government, and certainly not an HOA.
Years ago when I first decided to join the board myself, a board member at the time said that I couldn't because I wasn't married to my partner. Little did he know that I am on the deed to the property, so his point was moot. But if we had been married that situation would never have occurred.
Several years later, that then-former board member and another resident threatened my family, calling my partner a "homo" and chanting, "your day is going to come, your day is going to come."
So while my current board may have good intentions with these bylaw changes, the next board may use that very same bylaw to exclude some family they don't deem "worthy" enough to live there.
As the old saying goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."