'I Never Knew People Could Be So Hateful.'; Discrimination over Sexual Orientation Exists, a Study Finds

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Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

Discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people is rampant in Jacksonville, according to a first-of-its-kind set of studies commissioned by the city.

More than 40 percent of the 235 GLBT people surveyed have experienced recent problems, whether related to jobs, housing or other arenas in the city. Yet, according to a second survey, most Jacksonville residents believe such discrimination is wrong.

The studies are believed to be the first recent formal inquiries into discrimination against sexual minorities in Jacksonville. They were performed by the University of North Florida and the Jacksonville Community Council Inc. at the request of the city's Human Rights Commission,

Jacksonville has long been considered a conservative city - in part because, unlike every other major city in Florida, it does not include sexual orientation or gender identity in its discrimination ordinance. But advocates in the gay community say the very existence of the study is a positive step.

Yet the study's tales of discrimination were sobering; respondents reported job losses, housing harassment, school suspensions and even violence, all because of their identity. A "recurrent thread of fear" ran through discussions of discrimination, researchers said.

Chris Fulcher, 21, wasn't one of the study respondents, but he knows about the fear.

The UNF student was a victim in 2007, when he started coming out as gay to his friends on campus. Some of those so-called friends started leaving sinister notes on his dorm room door, including death threats.

"I never knew people could be so hateful," Fulcher said. "At first, I was afraid of the campus."

But he soon started turning to activism - becoming president of the school's Pride Club, working with the LGBT Resource Center - instead. He and Leni Akapnitis, also 21, organized a campus demonstration for tolerance on Wednesday. The annual "Fine By Me" event was deemed a success: The group ran out of T-shirts that read, "Gay? That's fine by me."

Fulcher lauded the campus police and housing department's response to the threats. He also feels lucky.

"I've talked to people with worse experiences than me," he said.

With the campus growing more welcoming, Akapnitis is optimistic about campus life improving for gay and lesbian students. But she wonders if her work will turn off potential employers. She has thrown herself into advocating for tolerance of the GLBT community, building skills such as event planning and budgeting.

"My resume is very queer," she said. "I've learned a lot of skills, but I worry that will affect my job hunt."

If the UNF study is correct, most residents of the city feel it shouldn't.

More than 90 percent said in an October telephone survey that sexual minorities should receive equal treatment in the workplace. Three-quarters of respondents said they would be equally comfortable living next door to a single, heterosexual female as they would living next door to a lesbian.

That was more than would feel comfortable living next to a person with disabilities. About 83 percent said a straight person was no more moral than a gay person.

Perceptions and reality, though, may not be in line. People who said they had a friend or family member who was gay were far more likely to report that the level of discrimination was high in Jacksonville: 15.5 percent versus 10.7 percent for those who said no one in their family or circle of friends was gay.

The stories that came out through the JCCI interviews were familiar to the Rev. Ruth Jensen-Forbell, a Jacksonville resident and pastor of First Coast Metropolitan Community Church, where many members are gay.

One of her congregants - who was afraid to speak publicly about her experience - is coping with a legal battle involving her partner, who was terribly injured in an accident and has trouble communicating. …