Students in Solidarity Witness Historic Step toward Equality

April 28, 2011

Lisa Tillmann and students at Board of Commissioner's Meeting

The syllabus for Solidarity, Equality, Community for Tuesday, April 19 had us reading pages 111-167 of Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by transgendered author, performance artist and activist Kate Bornstein. Since Bornstein charges her readers with the task of pointing “a way out of struggle and suffering for as many people as possible,” the students and I agreed that she likely would forgive a delayed discussion of the assigned reading to enable our attendance at the Board of County Commissioners’ (BCC) meeting. The Commission would vote on a proposal to offer domestic partner (DP) benefits (including health care, life insurance, and bereavement leave) to Orange County employees.

Class members Louisa Gibbs (Class of 2011) and Julie Katz (Class of 2011) arrived on time for the 9 a.m. meeting. The rest of us came rushing from campus and entered the chambers just as citizens who had registered to speak wrapped up their testimony. We made quite an entrance: nine more students and one proud professor, all sporting red—the color local activists chose to signify support for DP benefits.

Just then, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs offered a last call for public comments. I took my prepared remarks to the last place in line at the microphone. It was not lost on the mayor or commissioners that the final three speakers had affiliations with Barry Law School, UCF and Rollins College.

When my turn came, I apologized to the BCC for our late arrival. “I was teaching an 8 a.m. class at Rollins,” I explained. “I did, however, bring my 9:30 class.” Goodwill seemed to permeate the room. I told those present, “Our course is called Solidarity, Equality, Community, and we have been exploring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) identities, histories, and social movements.” I turned to my students: “I’d like the course participants to stand.” In a wave of red, they rose and a smiling Mayor Jacobs offered them “extra credit.”

Again addressing the BCC, I reported, “In 1995, I began conducting research and teaching courses pertaining to gender and sexual orientation. Three years later, I completed my Ph.D. and applied for 22 academic jobs. As I looked into each school, I noted whether sexual orientation was listed as a protected class in the institution’s equal opportunity policy and whether the school offered domestic partner benefits. Though as a heterosexual, then-married woman, I was highly unlikely to be discriminated against due to my sexual orientation and I had no need for DP benefits myself, that Rollins had an inclusive policy and offered partner benefits communicated to me that the institution values fairness, equity, and justice—core values of mine. That is the message you will convey today: that Orange County values fairness, equity, and justice.”

In her comments to the commissioners, Mayor Jacobs singled out the efforts and tenacity of local attorney and activist Mary Meeks, who met with each commissioner and served as the liaison between the mayor and the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee (OADO), one of a coalition of groups supporting passage of DP benefits.

After the proposal was explained, moved, and seconded, the Mayor called for questions and comments. Commissioner Ted Edwards addressed our group directly, saying that he lives “two blocks from Rollins” and that he felt very impressed to see so many students at the meeting. Later, the students’ presence was highlighted in local media, including One Orlando  and the Watermark.

The clock ticked past 10:30, and I knew several students had to return to campus for an 11 a.m. class. At last the Mayor called for a vote: 6-0 in favor, meriting a standing ovation from the chambers.

The meeting had a significant impact on the Solidarity students. Critical Media and Cultural Studies (CMC) major Julie Katz (Class of 2011) called the experience “truly inspiring.” She continued, “I felt a great surge of hope as the hard work of a dedicated community paid off in such a progressive way. You can't underestimate the power of people and their passions.” Andrew Wells (Class of 2011), also a CMC major, expressed hope in an even more welcoming future, adding, "I'm glad I was able to witness history in the making.”

"Being present at the Commissioner’s meeting was both empowering and bittersweet,” Rachel Kaufman (Class of 2012) shared. “As an ally for the LGBT community in favor of the ordinance, I was proud to be part of a community that was working hard to find a solution that worked in the best interest of all of our citizens, not just those that identify as heterosexual like myself.  After all, none is any more or any less of a human being."

English and CMC major Louisa Gibbs (Class of 2011) indicated that her experience “showed me LGBT advocacy on a level I had never seen before.” Said Gibbs, “Going to the meeting put the purpose and values of our class into action, and I sat proudly as an ally while I got to watch the commissioners pass historical legislation for the LGBT community. That's solidarity.”

Contributed by Professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies Lisa Tillmann

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