A Miami civil rights lawyer hopes his client — a butch lesbian evicted from her rental at a North Bay Village condominium — is among the first vindicated through a recent decision by the Florida Commission on Human Relations.
“Civil rights laws in Florida have to mirror the interpretation of federal civil rights laws,” said attorney Matthew Dietz, who represents plaintiff Vanesa Daschuta. “My client was essentially pushed out of her condo that she was renting.”
The U.S. Supreme Court last June ruled 6-3 that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which bans most workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin — also protects workers from being fired on the basis of their sexual orientations or gender identities.
Using that court decision as a base, Florida’s appointed Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) voted in January that in this state you can’t discriminate against LGBT people in areas of workplace, public accommodations and housing.
Daschuta first rented the 14th-floor unit in 2008. Her landlord “loved her,” Dietz said, but after a 2012 change in condo board leadership, she was “highly scrutinized, harassed, and threatened with electronic communications for warnings of minor violations,” according to a court filing.
Eventually, in 2015, “My client was essentially pushed out,” Dietz said. Daschuta filed a complaint with the Human Relations Commission and also sued in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. That case still hasn’t been settled.
Then in June 2020 came the Supreme Court ruling, led by Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, that under Title VII, Clayton County, Georgia, illegally fired Gerald Bostock, a juvenile-court employee, because he is gay.
Until Gorsuch and five fellow justices ruled that the word “sex” in Title VII covers sexual orientation and gender identity, Dietz was unable to simply say Daschuta was discriminated against because she’s a lesbian.
Instead, he wrote in the court filing, Daschuta was singled out because her “appearance and mannerism are not typical with traditional female gender stereotypes.”
“We had to file it under gender nonconformance because she didn’t dress like a typical woman from the Miami Beach area,” Dietz said. And “How do you prove that somebody looks like a lesbian in order to prove gender nonconformance?”
Now, Dietz won’t have to. Since the court case is still ongoing, Dietz plans to update the complaint to say Daschuta was discriminated against because of her sexual orientation.
“The most important thing is that people understand they have the right to seek justice and they can actually use the mechanism in place to safeguard their civil rights,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, which has long lobbied for LGBT nondiscrimination protections.
After the commission published its ruling on Jan. 28, Smith described it as “a huge win and cause for celebration statewide.”
“No matter where you live in the state of Florida, if you experience discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, you have the right to pursue justice through Florida’s civil rights laws,” Smith said.
Smith said that since word got out about the commission decision, “We have heard overwhelming praise from a bipartisan cadre of legislators who have made the [Florida Competitive Workforce Act] the most co-sponsored issue in Tallahassee year after year,” adding that support from the business community and local elected leaders “has been resounding.”
“This is a story that is shining a favorable spotlight on the state of Florida,” Smith said.
Smith said that “with the Bostock ruling and the clarity of the Florida Commission on Human Relations,” LGBTQ Floridians have achieved “total victory.”
“We want anyone anywhere in the state of Florida who has experienced discrimination, to have the confidence that they are protected under our state civil rights law,” she said.
Some South Florida LGBTQ leaders, however, still want a state law that fully protects queer people.
“The statewide nondiscrimination bill is still very relevant,” said SAVE LGBTQ Executive Director Orlando Gonzales, who describes the commission’s vote as “a tremendous milestone in the movement for equality and equity.”
“But it is important that Florida law is codified with the upcoming, hopeful, passage of an equality act,” he added.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced "it will administer and enforce the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity."
Attorney Rand Hoch, president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, called the HUD statement "welcome news," but added that without a law in place, it could be changed "with the stroke of a pen in a future presidential administration."
"All of this underscores the need to continue to work to amend the Florida Civil Rights Act and Florida's Fair Housing Act to specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression," Hoch said.
In 1969, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Commission on Human Relations “to enforce the Florida Civil Rights Act and address discrimination issues through education, outreach and partnerships,” according to the FCHR website. “The Commission has investigated and closed more than 74,000 cases and has negotiated close to $13 million in settlement amounts for more than 1,500 people through its mediation services.”
Last July, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Monica Cepero, Broward’s deputy county administrator, to a four-year term on the commission.
Cepero, a former SAVE LGBTQ board member, says her appointment came “as an openly gay woman who got married to her partner, Zenaida Cepero, in 2019.”
At her second FCHR meeting on Sept. 17, Cepero “brought forward an agenda item, ‘Supreme Court Guidance on Sex Discrimination.’”
Cepero said the commission had “a conversation about Bostock and I wanted to make sure that we were following the letter of the law and the guidance of the Supreme Court. It was unanimously approved.”
At the Jan. 21 meeting — a day after newly inaugurated President Joe Biden issued an executive order citing Bostock to prohibit LGBT discrimination in the workplace, healthcare, housing and other areas — the commission voted to “embrace, endorse and support the contents and protections of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act,” a bill long supported by Equality Florida and many businesses throughout the state that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The commission posted on its website: “The FCHR accepts claims of sex discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation for investigation in employment and public accommodations complaints. Furthermore, the FCHR investigates housing discrimination under the Florida Fair Housing Act and Title VIII, based upon race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. The FCHR is committed to investigating housing violations based upon sex discrimination due to non-conformity with gender stereotypes.”
Also on Jan. 21, Cepero introduced a motion proposing that Florida pass a version of California’s 2019 CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle or hair texture.
“Society’s bias has resulted in unfair judgment and discrimination against Black women based on hair texture and protective hairstyles including braids, locs, and twists that are inherent to their race,” according to Dove soap and shampoo, which lobbied for the California law.
“Discrimination of any sort is just unacceptable,” Cepero said. “Part of what this commission does are outreach and education. This is an important step. We want to make sure that everyone in Florida is aware of the protections that are afforded to them.”
Journalist Steve Rothaus covered LGBT issues for 22 years at the Miami Herald.