Jimmy Midyette shares ups and downs of emotional five-year journey to HRO victory

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  • | 12:00 p.m. February 17, 2017
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Jimmy Midyette was one of the key leaders — both in public and behind the scenes — pushing since 2012 to expand the city’s human rights ordinance.

The Jacksonville native and lawyer at the Luna Law Firm answered questions about rough times along the five-year path, respect for the principles of a couple of City Council members who opposed the legislation and what it felt like when the years-long fight ended with a victory.

You seemed confident going into the meeting Tuesday night that the legislation would pass this time, but describe your feelings as you were listening to the amendments and the final debate?

My confidence stemmed from the committee meetings in the week before the final vote. I knew that 10 council members already voted for the bill in some form the prior week.

Also, many of the amendments proposed (Tuesday) night were also previewed in committees. I was proud of the 13 council members who stuck together defeating bad amendments.

By those I mean the ones that would have placed the question out as a referendum, restricted private companies, and worse, removed gender identity from the bill.

As proud as I was of those who stood tough, I was disappointed by the comments of the opponents of the bill.

However, of the opponents, I was impressed by both council member (Doyle) Carter and council member (Matt) Schellenberg. I never got the sense from them that they were playing politics or using discredited scare tactics. I respect principled opposition like theirs.

As a complete aside, I was moved by the comments of council member Reggie Brown throughout the night.

In battling back amendments and on the main bill, he evoked the long history of struggle in this country for civil and human rights progress.

When he talked about his own experiences as a soldier and how LGBT service members who can now serve openly, fight and die for the freedoms of us all — that was a powerful moment. And this was a council member who, in 2012, voted against 2012-296.

He’s come a long way and I’m interested to see how far he wishes to go in elected office.

It usually takes a matter of just a few seconds for council members to vote on something. What was it like watching the monitor, waiting for the votes to roll in?

On the first couple of votes, I was on the edge of my seat. The (Scott) Wilson amendment was a common sense upgrade. Civil law shouldn’t include criminal penalties like jail time.

Seeing the council members adopt Mr. Wilson’s amendment made me happy that he had a chance to put his own touch on such consequential legislation.

As the other amendments were voted down, it’s fair to say the writing was on the wall.

I moved back from the edge of my seat and started to take in the reality that what we started in 2012 would be realized in 2017.

And when you first realized it had passed, with votes to spare?

We were all so aware of council President (Lori) Boyer’s admonitions to keep the decorum of the chamber.

When I saw the board light up with a supermajority vote, 12-6, I muttered a quick prayer under my breath and posted the picture I’d taken of the monitor to Facebook.

Until that moment, I was worried that council member Katrina Brown’s absence might have an unexpected impact.

I purposefully sat in the same seat that I occupied on Aug. 15, 2012, because I wanted it to come full circle. From a loss of 2-17 to win by 12-6, I was relieved and amazed and so proud.

Why did it pass this time when the other efforts had failed? There were some changes in the legislation filed in January. Was it as simple as that or was there more to it?

After the loss in 2012, we went back to the drawing board on strategy.

I don’t consider the withdrawal in 2016 to be a loss; we were getting mixed up into other important business and it was clear we needed to get out of the way of the pension fix legislation and vote.

We built a huge business coalition (700-plus) and faith leader group (200-plus). A few of us worked on understanding where candidates in the 2015 city elections would come down on the question.

Audrey Moran used her position as chair of the (JAX) Chamber to get engaged. With political skills, a lot of new stakeholders, Audrey and Darnell Smith and the staff of the chamber — that’s what made the difference.

Talk about some of the behind-the-scenes work you and others did throughout the process.

Our efforts throughout 2014 to pass an HRO in Atlantic Beach were very much about the Jacksonville outcome.

Having Mayor (Lenny) Curry come forward a year ago with his directive to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s own equal opportunity provisions — and to require vendors to comply — that was huge for us because it gave us something else to build from.

We went and got Sheriff (Mike) Williams to do the same at JSO; several independent authorities did the same. This was all to build a wave of inevitability.

I did write a new version of the bill that was only five pages long and worked with some of the top lawyers and law firms in the city to get it into a form that was the product of what we’d learned since 2012 about how to message our respect for small business and religious organizations.

Were there times you thought the fight was hopeless or did you always believe it could happen?

While I always had faith that we could do this, it was hard to hold on to that faith in late 2015/early 2016.

We were getting signals from city leaders that we needed to wait until after the mayor and council dealt with the budget.

And then we needed to wait until after the mayor had the opportunity to convene his community conversations.

Then the issue around the pension came up.

I began to fear we were being pushed further and further away from a chance to succeed.

And throughout all of this, JCE (Jacksonville Coalition for Equality) had to hear and hold at bay the LGBT community’s frustration without compromising the trust of the community or offending the mayor and council, who we would need.

The 2016 withdrawal was tactical, but it began to feel like the window was closing.

What were the darkest times for you throughout the process, dating back to the 2012 effort?

The night of that vote in 2012, and the immediate aftermath, was terrible.

From the dais, council member (Clay) Yarborough impugned my integrity.

The strain of the defeat caused a breakup, the loss of a promotion at work and made me question for the first time if Jacksonville was a city worth fighting for.

A recurring source of darkness was sitting in rooms being called some of the most offensive names imaginable. Hearing my transgender friends referred to as “men in dresses.” Being compared to alcoholics, murders and much worse. That can wear a person down over time.

You and others who supported the HRO expansion praised Mayor Lenny Curry when he issued his executive order prohibiting employment discrimination by the city based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Were you hoping for more from him after that or did you know his support would stop there?

I hoped for more. I, of course, have watched Mayor Curry closely since 2015. I’ve listened carefully to his language on this issue and its evolution.

What began as a campaign statement about not seeing a need became an openness to explore the question through his community conversations.

Then he adopted that directive on nondiscrimination of his own employees at the city.

I believed if we kept making the case, he would keep meeting us closer to our position.

Outside of council members, who are some of the biggest champions in getting the issue back on the radar screen and getting it passed?

It’s hard to make a list that doesn’t leave anyone out, but any list must include Audrey Moran and Darnell Smith. Their leadership as chairs of the chamber through this revived process made it possible.

And leaders in their orbit like Nancy Broner, Buddy Schulz, John Delaney and Jeanne Miller. When Shad Khan and Mark Lamping engaged and Paul Harden helped pro bono, that also clearly made a difference. Steve Halverson, Preston Haskell, Gary Chartrand, Hugh Greene and Bill and Sandy Bond.

Honorable mention goes to the legislature of North Carolina and the deposed former governor of that state for HB2. That crystalized the economic stakes, especially around what the NCAA and ACC did in moving events out of North Carolina.

As you were interacting with those who opposed the expansion, were there some who crossed the line? How did you handle those moments?

Kenneth Adkins and his awful memes on social media depicting council member (Tommy) Hazouri and (Duval County Public Schools) Superintendent Dr. Nicholai Vitti as a peeping Toms, were beyond the pale. This especially considering Adkins’ own legal troubles that have caused him to be locked in a Brunswick jail for months.

Most of that kind of commentary was easy to ignore. I believe it was discourteous to allow speakers at the City Council to refer to LGBT people with derogatory names, to question the well-being of our souls and to refer insultingly to “men in dresses” — we were sitting in close quarters.

Sometimes emotions would run high and it would be necessary to take some of our LGBT community, and even allies, aside and check in with them to be sure they were holding up.

Ultimately, ironically, the harshest language from our opponents worked to our advantage.

It wasn’t hard to imagine Jacksonville residents who would deny an apartment or a job to LGBT people given the awful things the opponents were saying to our faces.

What did you learn about the city — good and bad — during the years-long process?

The bad is that we are a city divided along many fault lines. That makes us especially susceptible to being pit against each other. It was stated time and again that to provide rights to one group you had to remove them from another group.

That ignores that we’re not one thing. I know older middle-class African American lesbians who are Christians. That’s at least six identities that make them potential targets for discrimination.

Being LGBT doesn’t mean you’re white. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a faith tradition. It doesn’t mean you live in a house on the river. Or that you’re not a parent or spouse.

The good is that we are a vibrant, diverse community. We can set aside differences, find common ground and work together on big things as One City One Jacksonville.

We can develop Jacksonville solutions that become models for the nation. We had real HRO champions on the council.

But the bravest votes made were those cast by open-minded skeptics who were listening for something new to understand something unfamiliar.

If we can grow that pool on our council, in our neighborhoods, there’s nothing we can’t achieve in Jacksonville; even if we must do hard work for years to get it done.

Any personal regrets on how you handled discussing the issue, both in public and in private?

I regret times when I was impatient with people who were taking longer than I thought they needed to arrive at their decisions.

I regret that I lost a few friendships along the way over differences in tactics and strategy.

It’s not quite a regret, but I know I offended members of the LGBT community due to the seemingly glacial pace of change, and for that I’m sorry.

Who were you most looking forward to talking to after the council’s vote? What was that conversation like?

Audrey Moran. She’s been a consistent supporter on this and a leader in making it happen.

It was good to reminisce about how it felt following the bad outcome in 2012 versus the amazing outcome this week.

Best hug ever.

Describe the celebration in Hemming Park after the council meeting.

It was invigorating. When the measure went down to defeat in 2012, we left City Hall and retreated to Hemming. I stood on one of the chairs (subsequently removed) and vowed that we would return and win.

(Tuesday) night, it was an amazing scene. There was music, dancing and love. Supportive signs and rainbow flags were everywhere.

Our leadership team got on stage and expressed our appreciation for the support — of the folks in the park and the 12 council members who had just made it all right to be ourselves in Jacksonville without fear of discrimination.

And Wednesday morning when you woke up and thought to yourself, “It really passed last night,” what was that like?

I had to check my phone to make sure it wasn’t a dream. When I was convinced it did happen, it wasn’t a dream, my first thought was: We have to thank the council.

I scrolled through Facebook and Twitter, trying to get the mood of the city.

I sent some texts to check in with the JCE team to see if anyone was working on (communications). The work never actually ends and I wouldn’t have it any other way.