The Macon-Bibb County Commission narrowly approved broad new non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and others on Tuesday, making the state’s fourth-largest city the latest in Georgia to adopt such a policy.
The commission voted 5 to 4 in favor of the ordinance during a sometimes-contentious meeting. Before the vote, faith leaders, business owners and other citizens spoke about the ordinance during a virtual public hearing that included several transphobic comments.
Commissioner Virgil Watkins, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, said the debate centered on including LGBTQ protections in the measure.
“Today the question is, can I fire you because I found out you’re transgender or gay?” Watkins said. “And my thoughts are that there should be a legal remedy for that.”
The nondiscrimination ordinance prohibits bias in private employment, housing and public accommodations. It bans discrimination in those areas based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity or military status.
The ordinance becomes law barring a veto by Mayor Robert Reichert, who called it “a controversial and highly emotional issue for a lot of people” during Tuesday’s commission meeting. His office received 700 emails about the ordinance.
Reichert did not respond to Project Q Atlanta’s question about his position on the ordinance.
‘We don’t want to be Atlanta’
Macon-Bibb County joins at least 11 other municipalities in Georgia to approve an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. But some commissioners didn’t want Macon to join that list.
“We’re not Atlanta, and we don’t want to be Atlanta,” Commissioner Valerie Wynn said. “We want to be Macon-Bibb County, Ga., and we want to do things the way we want to do them.”
Wynn warned that voting in favor of the ordinance would be the legacy of those commissioners.
“I would be delighted to have this be my legacy within Macon-Bibb County,” Commissioner Larry Schlesinger responded.
Schlesinger sponsored the ordinance. Watkins, Mayor Pro Tem Al Tillman and Commissioner Elaine Lucas were co-sponsors. They joined Commissioner Bert Bivins in voting for the ordinance. Commissioners Mallory Jones, Joe Allen, Scotty Shepherd and Wynn voted against it.
Several members interjected after Jones targeted transgender people during the meeting.
“Many of these people are confused and that’s why the rate of suicide is so high,” he said.
Reichert muted commissioners’ microphones until Jones finished. The comments about trans people were out of hand, Tillman said.
“The city has allowed folks to call folks crazy, psychos, suicidal,” Tillman said. “These are folks that live with us in this community.”
‘I am your neighbor’
Faith leaders, business owners, parents, activists and other citizens spoke out about the ordinance during a virtual public hearing earlier on Tuesday.
Pastors who spoke appeared evenly split on their support for the ordinance, with transgender protections being the main point of contention throughout the hearing. Rev. Rusty Smith of Wackata Baptist Church made sweeping mischaracterizations about trans people in his comments.
“What if I said when I walked in this door, I feel like the mayor today? So, it’s basically based on my feelings,” he said. “You shouldn’t be able to say … I feel like a girl today so I’m going in the girls’ restroom even though biologically I’m a boy.”
The ordinance would endanger women and children, according to Rev. Donald Reid of Aletheia Baptist Church.
“Tea is fluid. Water is fluid. Gender is not fluid,” he said. “There are only two genders — male and female.”
Rev. Scott Dickison of First Baptist Church of Christ criticized the “lies and innuendo” about trans people during the debate. He also noted that the ordinance has no effect on churches or schools.
“Macon, like the rest of our nation, has the opportunity to do better … and what is right under the law,” he said.
Speakers in favor of the ordinance repeatedly rebutted critical comments about trans women using restrooms.
“I don’t know how we’re so stuck on bathrooms and locker rooms,” Rev. Jake Hall of Highland Hills Baptist Church said. “Where do you all think transgender people go to the bathroom right now? Do you think they’re all waiting on you commissioners to tell them where to go to the bathroom?”
Emily Wright, an attorney who lives in Macon with her wife, hit back at critics of the ordinance.
“I am your neighbor. I’m not a pervert. I’m not a predator,” she said. “I’m a member of this community who should be valued for what they can contribute.”
Violators subject to $500 fine
Under the ordinance, Macon-Bibb County must review initial complaints of alleged violations, then refer cases to an independent mediator for non-binding and voluntary mediation. A complaint must include a $75 filing fee and come within 60 days of the alleged act of discrimination.
If mediation fails to resolve the complaint, the case goes to an independent hearing officer. Fines against any violation by person or business go up to $500.
The non-prevailing party in the complaint pays the mediator and hearing officer fees.
The ordinance carves out exceptions, including non-profit private clubs not open to the public and religious organizations operating non-commercial facilities. The ordinance does not address hate crimes, as some measures passed in other cities do.
The commission voted 5 to 3 on Nov. 11 to advance the proposal, according to the AJC. A coalition of LGBTQ, social justice and civic groups in Macon held a march and rally supporting the ordinance in March.
Jones and Allen voted against extending employment protections to LGBTQ county workers in 2017. The measure passed without them.
Macon-Bibb is the latest jurisdiction in the state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance. Similar measures were approved in Statesboro on Oct. 20, Smyrna on Aug. 3, Savannah on July 23 and East Point on June 15.
With those policies included, at least 12 Georgia municipalities now have similar LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bias policies: Atlanta, Brookhaven, Chamblee, Clarkston, Decatur, Doraville, Dunwoody, East Point, Macon-Bibb County, Savannah, Smyrna and Statesboro.
This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.