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Tuesday, 2 April, 2002, 19:12 GMT 20:12 UK
Rights of Miami's gays under threat
People relax on South Beach
Glamorous South Beach could suffer if gay rights are abolished
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By the BBC's Fergal Parkinson
In Miami
At four o'clock in the afternoon the beach bars and restaurants of Miami's Ocean Drive are already buzzing.

Music pumps from open topped cars and tanned people spill out into the street.

South Beach, as it is known world-wide, is home to one of the largest gay communities in the US and is the flagship of Miami's open and tolerant atmosphere.

However in September this year, the residents of Miami-Dade county will go to the polls to decide whether to abolish certain human rights for homosexuals.

Christian Coalition spokesman Eladio Armesto
Eladio Armesto says homosexuals take advantage of their legal position
The ballot has been forced by a right-wing organisation, the Christian Coalition, whose members have gathered 50,000 signatures supporting their cause to have the words "sexual orientation" taken out of the local government's Human Rights Ordinance.

If the referendum goes their way it will no longer be illegal in Miami to single out homosexuals. A company could choose not to hire people on the grounds of sexual orientation, a landlord would not have to rent to someone he thinks may be gay and insurance companies can refuse to insure.

The Christian Coalition have their roots in Little Havana, a poor and predominantly Cuban-American neighbourhood near down-town Miami.

Comparative wealth

Many people here feel bitter about the comparatively wealthy and, in their eyes, predominantly gay neighbourhoods on the other side of the bay.

Their spokesperson Eladio Armesto, though unable to offer examples, accuses homosexuals of taking advantage of their current legal position and of gaining financially from their campaign to block the repeal.

We're progressive, we're tolerant and we're accepting of different people from so many different backgrounds.

Alex Penelas
Miami-Dade county mayor
At the same time he denies the existence of homophobia within the community and refutes the need for protective laws.

"Homosexuals do not meet the criteria for being a discriminated minority" he told me. "They are not visibly different and they have an average personal income higher than the average family in Miami, so why should they be protected?"

Vigorous defence

A campaign against the referendum is already underway. Volunteers from many different backgrounds have come together to mount a vigorous defence using tactics from phone canvassing to advertising in the local press.

Local housewife Heddy Pena is leading the campaign.

"Its rare that a community decides to take away the rights of individuals and that's exactly what would happen in this instance if the repeal is successful" she says.

Campaigners fight to save the charter
A campaign to protect the human rights ordinance has begun
City leaders are also worried. They think the whole argument is deeply damaging to Miami's image as a tolerant modern city, which could cost not only jobs but millions of dollars in revenue.

I met Miami's mayor Alex Penelas and he told me his concerns.

"We're progressive, we're tolerant and we're accepting of different people from so many different backgrounds.

"Then all of a sudden you have a small group of people that are forcing down out throats a vote on a controversial issue that if it is not properly understood by the public could send a very devastating message world-wide even if the effort is unsuccessful."

Miami residents will vote on 10 September.

See also:

24 Feb 02 | Americas
Crisis sends Argentines to Miami
10 Feb 02 | Americas
Black boycott of Miami ends
28 Jun 00 | Americas
US court bans gay Scout leaders
19 Apr 00 | Americas
Vermont approves gay rights bill
03 Mar 01 | Entertainment
America's gay TV revolution
30 Mar 00 | Americas
US rabbis approve gay partnership
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