So now we know where we are. We were about an inch away from the first meaningful public recognition of the value and dignity of gay relationships in this county’s history. We came up a step short.
Much more importantly, somewhere there’s a Lakeland police officer, firefighter, lineman or parks and recreation worker, whom you see every day, who won’t get the security of providing for the person he or she loves most. That’s what this was about. And it hurts not to achieve it. No getting around that. But few things worth doing get done without hurt.
First, I want to thank everyone who took the time to offer support or encourage our city commissioners to do the right thing. And I want to thank Commissioners Don Selvage, Justin Troller, and Keith Merritt. They were unwavering in their commitment to conscience. And Don, particularly, made the case for the wisdom and decency of this effort better than I ever made it. They all took a political risk for moral reasons. We say we want that from our politicians, whatever their ideology. So we need to have their backs, with our time and our money.
Second, I want to apologize to that police officer, firefighter, parks and rec. worker or Lakeland Electric linemen. I made this debate happen by showing up and asking for it. I looked at the make-up of the City Commission and concluded we might be able to do this the easy way. In doing that, I risked nothing of my own. But I gambled with your hopes. I think it was a good gamble, as evidenced by how far we got. But it was a gamble just the same. And it did not pay off as I had hoped. I didn’t or couldn’t do enough to build the critical mass of public support we needed. I’m very sorry for that. We’re going to have to do this the hard way, through the slow and steady accrual of power.
And we’re not in a terribly bad place for starting that work. When you step past the tangible disappointment for the lives of real people, which we shouldn’t do lightly, I think this process has been extremely valuable and clarifying. Everyone had to take a position; and that’s given us a pretty good picture of our city on this issue.It’s about where I thought it was:
Three commissioners supported it on the merits. Three rejected it because they reject recognition of the worth and dignity of gay relationships. And the swing vote, citing not a single value-based objection, tipped over into the “no” category for list of specious bureaucratic reasons stated incoherently. So we won the community values-based argument. There were not four votes to reject it on anti-gay grounds. And yet we still didn’t win.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for the city as a whole, I would say. We’re not as far along as Tampa and Orlando and college towns, but we’re not so far behind as many people would like to think — on all sides. And we’re gaining.
How do I know that? In part because I could hear the lack of conviction in Edie Yates’ “arguments” against benefit equality. I want to run them down quickly, with a little background on each. Go listen to the tape if you don’t believe me.
1) The request for benefit equality came through an “improper channel” — namely me.
By that, she particularly meant employees didn’t ask for it. Apparently, a taxpayer and ratepayer and city resident does not have standing to ask for a personnel policy change at a public Lakeland City Commission meeting. Only employees. We’ll see if Edie adheres to that standard in the future; she should be reminded of it. However, even accepting that standard, Edie herself, at a previous meeting had asked if any employee had requested the policy change after I raised it. Karen Lukhaub, the city’s risk management director, said yes. And on Friday, Commissioner Justin Troller said two employees had come to him saying they would exercise benefit equality. When he asked Edie if that mattered, she ignored him.
2) There was just too much potential for fraud. It would be too easy for someone just to sign up a friend if the friend got sick.
In reality, as she had heard in the discussion just a few moments before, the city would require a sworn affidavit with a long of requirements and proofs, witnesses, and pain of prosecution for perjury. City Manager Doug Thomas was asked point blank if the fraud control were adequate. “Yes,” he said. I’ve heard no evidence of fraud anywhere else. But even put the protections aside. Edie lives in probably the gayest neighborhood in town — Lake Morton. She oversees hundreds of city employees. And if you believe that she believes what she says, which I don’t, she views a large swath of her friends and neighbors and employees with acute suspicion based on nothing. She ought to explain why or retract.
3) It’s too expensive.
It’s hard for me to see how the same person can simultaneously complain that not enough employees asked for benefit equality and that it’s too expensive. It isn’t; it wasn’t. It’s been a financial non-event in every other city/county that adopted it. Lakeland’s actuarial impact study predicted that the policy might add up to 9 additional people, perhaps fewer, to the plan. Other cities’ experiences suggest fewer. We’re most likely talking about 3 or 4. In any event, over the last three years, the plan has fluctuated by an average of 17 people per year. This change would have been lost in the normal year-to-year wash of the plan. Edie’s an accountant. She knows that.
4) Finally, not seeming to believe any of her own arguments, she just rhetorically threw up her hands. Well, health care’s a mess, so we probably won’t even have a plan in two years. This is all “moot.” Moot is a direct quote.
I actually have some sympathy for this argument. Health care is a mess in this country and has been the single greatest fiscal drag on local governments since I covered the Polk County Commission in 1999-2002. But benefit equality makes no fiscal difference. And, if I were an intrepid reporter, I’d follow up on the fact that a city commissioner claims to think the city won’t have an employee health care plan in two years. That seems like a news story.
All in all, these were the hollow rationalizations of a public figure shrinking from a moment, not any kind of principled argument. She should have just voted and said nothing.
A while back, I wrote this about the Penn State abuse:
In many ways, ours is less desolate than our forebears. But that doesn’t change how little of our lives are fully in our control. At best we control them on the margins, I would say. But we do get moments. We get our chances to make Desolation Row a little less desolate. As Penn State shows, those moments do not present themselves on our schedules. Rising to them is achingly hard and always involves real consequences. Most of us will fail to meet those moments as thoroughly as Joe Paterno did; yet the world will still produce more humans, and no one will ever know about it.
You had a small, but real, moment, Edie. You whiffed. And unfortunately, people know. I hope they will politely, but consistently, remind you of it. I hope your neighbors, when they see you, will reassure you in person that they’re not trying steal anything from you. I hope the phrase “fraud risk” sticks to you. In any event, I assure you the other side will forget all of this quickly.
Who knows the real reason that Edie voted against it? My best guess is that she felt the personal, political, and even business consequences of supporting benefit equality outweighed the benefits and her conscience. But really, you’ll have to ask her. And I think asking the real reason is a pretty good tactic in changing the consequence equation for the future. To my mind, shame is very powerful long-term weapon against people who ignore their consciences for the sake of expediency.
As far as the other three commissioners, who seem to sincerely reject the dignity and legitimacy of gay relationships, we just have to keep working. And most importantly, actual gay men and women need to keep living the way they live, with heads held up proudly. You got yourselves to this point; and you’ll deliver full equality soon.
Usually in debates involving activism, the entrenched and powerful forces of the status quo enjoy an advantage. They can afford to deploy armies of people paid to focus attention on an issue and decision-makers each day. Well, in this case, our side has armies of people living and loving every day. They prove Howard Wiggs, Gow Fields, and Phillip Walker exactly wrong– every day. And frankly, I think those commissioners know it. Even if they’ll never acknowledge it.
I am told that one of our local preachers wrote a scathing note to commissioners calling on them not to “normalize” gay relationships. Sorry, preacher. That’s a judgement beyond your ability to declare or enforce. The moment gay people took away your power to keep them in the closet, you lost.
All we’re doing now is negotiating the terms of victory. All we’re doing now is deciding whether it’s decent to provide cancer treatment to the loved one of a valued employee. I think it is. You think it’s not. I’m happy with my side of that argument. So is a lot of your congregation, including most of its future.
Remember, long after you have forgotten about eating chicken, your gay neighbors and friends and loved-ones will still be building homes and business and relationships. Indeed, how many of you waved your Chic-fil-a receipt in a gay acquaintance’s face last week? None, I’m willing to bet. You’re only willing to be rude and confrontational in the abstract, when there are no personal consequences. That’s because the gay men and women living open and productive lives have already normalized themselves.
Indeed, every city commissioner who opposed providing cancer treatment for the loved ones of valued employees went out of his or her way to talk about how they love gay people. Most had some in their family, with whom they have warm relationships. People confident in their judgements don’t need disclaimers. And let me tell you something: Any warm relationship you have with a gay loved one speaks much more clearly about your loved ones than it does about you.
Those loved ones aren’t going away. The employees who would benefit aren’t going away. The men and women of this community who have made this progress possible by their decency and citizenship aren’t going away. They win more supporters every day. I’m proud to be one of them.