Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ journey toward marriage equality

Orlando – I spoke with Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs at the Watermark offices on Thursday, Aug. 21. The headline coming out of the interview is that Jacobs announced her support for marriage equality. But she also offered unique insights into her journey on LGBT issues and her relationship with the local community.

With Florida court cases lined up like jets on a tarmac, and support for marriage equality vocalized by Orlando’s Buddy Dyer and mayors throughout the region, pressure has been mounting on Jacobs to weigh in.

In a 2010 interview with Watermark, Jacobs expressed support for civil unions but stated that ‘marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman.’ She also endorsed Florida’s ban on gay adoption.

But after winning election in 2010, Jacobs backed inclusion of sexual orientation in the county’s human rights ordinance. One of her first acts as mayor was approval of domestic partner benefits for county employees. And though a countywide domestic partner registry was more problematic, it passed with Jacobs’ vote in 2012.

Based on that record, some high profile Democrats supported Jacobs’ re-election in 2014. But when Democratic opponent Val Demings dropped out of the race in May, there was concern that Jacobs—a Republican and devout Catholic—would sidestep LGBT issues, especially marriage equality.

On July 25, she released a puzzling statement expressing support for religious freedom and confidence in the court system to resolve marriage equality.

“Although, as mayor, I have no jurisdiction on this issue, I have read the Miami-Dade lawsuit and believe that a very strong case was made.”

The statement disappointed detractors and supporters. We had plenty to talk about.

My impression? For Jacobs, embracing LGBT equality is not a political calculation—as it has been for many elected officials on the national level—but instead an exercise in shedding cultural stereotypes and deeply held religious beliefs. She believes her greatest value may be to help advance the thinking of those who are similarly situated; who believe in fairness and equality, but struggle to align that with conservative notions of family and church. Speaking to this audience, and not the LGBT community, may account for some of her missteps.

What follows are excerpts from a wide-ranging and sometimes emotional conversation of more than an hour.

On marriage equality:
I support it. Will it be upheld by the courts? I don’t know. I think so. I hope so.

On why she changed her mind:
My opinion is that gay couples should have the same rights and benefits as any other couple. I used to think that civil unions would get you there. But I see now that civil unions don’t provide the same rights and benefits. People should be able to share their lives with the person they love. Government should treat these couples the same. Once you establish that, it takes you to marriage equality.

On her previous reluctance to address marriage equality:
Members of the LGBT community want to know that I understand how important their relationships are. But I don’t have any jurisdiction over marriage equality. My role is the same as any individual with an opportunity to vote. So it has taken some time for me to come to terms with the fact that people want to know how I feel on this issue.

On her July 25 statement on the Miami-Dade lawsuit:
If I had realized people might find it unclear, I would have written it differently. I thought the arguments on the plaintiff’s behalf were very compelling. I think that the courts will find the ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.

On future court pronouncements:
We’ve seen over the last couple years that this patchwork quilt of how we address marriage, state by state, is a disaster. Hopefully this issue will be settled by the Supreme Court.

On her focus on religious freedom in the context of marriage equality:
For a long time when I heard the word ‘marriage’ I thought religion—my Catholic religion—and what I have been raised to believe. I think a lot of people still see marriage as a sacrament.

I wanted to be clear [in my July 25 statement] because I think it’s important, as we move this conversation forward and as society becomes more accepting, that people realize that they don’t have to feel threatened. I put that statement in because I wanted people to go, ‘Wait… this isn’t about what my Baptist church teaches or what my Catholic church teaches. My next door neighbor can still get married and have all the rights and privileges of marriage without taking anything away from my church.’
I got married 33 years ago this week. My husband is Jewish. I’m Catholic. We did not get married in the church or in a synagogue. Neither would permit it. Yet I continue to be Catholic and my husband continues to be Jewish. I don’t think they were right, but I would nonetheless defend my church’s right not to marry me.

I think it’s extremely important that government not be so reaching that it interferes with the right of religions to have their own doctrines. I think that is a big part of what this country was founded on.

On her role in advocating for marriage equality:
I hope that as mayor I have the opportunity to change opinions on a number of things. And I think that, with the right kind of communication, I can change some people’s opinions on this issue.

On whether she’s been approached by opponents of marriage equality:
Oh, gosh yes.

On what she has told or will tell them:
The same thing I told you. People should be free to choose whom they live with, and government shouldn’t discriminate against them for that choice.

On whether that will influence them:
Hopefully. But some will not be changed at this point in time.

On adoption by gays and lesbians:
I’ve changed my mind on that.

After our interview people got a hold of me and said, ‘Let me show you my family. Let me introduce you to my kids.’ And it was eye-opening to see how accepted they are in their neighborhoods and in their schools. I don’t know that you could find that everywhere in this country, but society is definitely moving in that direction and I’m glad we are where we are.

My daughter babysits for a [gay] couple that has twins. They are great parents.

On making domestic partner benefits a post-election priority:
When I expressed concerns about the financial impact you asked me a rather profound question, Tom, which was, ‘Why should cost matter for same-sex couples in a way that’s different than other couples?’ And I remember thinking, ‘Hmm… there’s something wrong with my thinking here. That doesn’t sit well with me.’ I quickly realized that we need to take this on… and it was the very first thing we did.

On the protracted process toward a domestic partner registry:
If we would have started with what this was really about, we would have gotten to a result much quicker. It’s amazing how quickly things move when there is trust, and how much they slow down when there isn’t.

A friend of mine asked me, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ I told him it was because we were considering legal ramifications… this issue and that issue. He said, ‘What about the fact that a registry will make people feel validated?’ That was the point where I understood the importance of putting ‘domestic partner registry’ in the title.

I take responsibility for the process. I think knowing what I know today, I would have done it very differently.

On comparisons with Mayor Dyer:
We’re generally trying to move in a similar direction on a lot of issues, but we have different styles. Collectively, I happen to think it serves this community pretty well. I think it’s generally good to have someone who is pushing the envelope and somebody who is slowing down and exploring things.

Jacobs photo by Jake Stevens. 

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