Tuesday’s Ocala City Council meeting drew an overflow crowd, most of whom were there to speak against a proposal to remove masculine pronouns from the city charter.
More than 100 people – spread out due to social distancing in the council chambers, the chambers’ anteroom and the first-floor lobby – attended the meeting.
After nearly two hours of denouncements, including from the group which originally proposed the change, the proposal was scrapped altogether.
The intention of the revision was to adjust language in the city’s charter, dating from the 1970s, so it reflected the expanded roles of women in certain male-dominated positions.
The proposed amendment would have changed “councilman” to “council member” and “policeman” to “police officer.” In the current charter document, all officials are referred to as “he,” including the city manager, who is currently a woman. It would have also removed the pronouns he and his.
But the proposal quickly drew backlash with some worried it was a backdoor attempt to move toward the use of non-gender pronouns, which have gained momentum among advocates and some linguist.
The backlash spurred Councilman Matthew Wardell to appear on a local radio station to try and explain where the proposal came from.
“I can’t choose what’s a hot-button issue. I can’t choose what someone’s going to misappropriate as something it’s not,” Wardell said during the show. “I think the idea of insisting on calling our city manager, who’s a woman, a ‘he’ is weird.”
But many still questioned the intentions behind the proposal on Tuesday night.
Gerald Bustin, the first to speak against the proposal, encompassed the overall theme of the 30-plus speakers who followed.
“I am concerned about this gender problem,” Bustin said “It seems to me that we’re catering to the LGBT community and not to God… This is not necessary at all to move away from he or she, because that’s all we are.”
Others feared the move would create a “slippery slope” where non-traditional pronouns used by those who identify as transgender or non-binary could make their way into the charter. At least one speaker suggested the use of “he/she” in the charter to acknowledge women and maintain the traditional gender pronouns.
Still, Wardell attempted to assure those in attendance that the proposed charter change, which would have been placed on the ballot of the Sept. 21 city election for voters to decide, had no ulterior motive.
“I just want to make clear that the Bible says ‘he or she’ and the charter says ‘he or she’,” Wardell explained. “What I believe the message of this is to recognize the many women, or ‘shes’ that work for the city and serve the city… The problem is now that we don’t say ‘he or she’, as you suggested. And I think that’s a good suggestion.”
Despite Wardell’s attempts, the steady stream of speaker’s against the proposal continued.
Some quoted news articles referencing transgender athletes and voiced concerns over city bathrooms not having gender signage. Others recited poems playing off Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.”
“I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them Sam I am,” Mary Greg began. “With cancel culture, I disagree that we can’t say words like ‘he’ and ‘she.’”
The 21st person to take the podium was the lone supporter of the proposal.
“I would ask that each of you… make an effort to combat the misinformation and the sheer propaganda that has surrounded such a simple issue as referring to a police officer of either gender as a police officer,” Sarah Clifton said. “And the fact that we have a woman serving in a position of authority and the charter does not reflect that… this is not nearly the catastrophic trip down a slippery slope that we’ve had, I don’t know how many people refer to this evening.”
After dozens of comments against the proposal, a representative of the Ocala pastors who suggested the change spoke.
“I want the record to be corrected to indicate that there was never any intent from the Black pastors when we presented the resolution,” said Apostle Brandon D. Cave Sr., a representative of the African American Pastoral Leaders of Ocala Marion County. “There has been a misrepresentation of what our intent was.”
But Cave went further than trying to set the record straight.
“May I ask then, if I’m in order, just to rescind… just delete, the resolution that has been considered and take it from consideration. Because it was never our intention that we go down this slippery slope,” Cave said.
After a few more comments, a voice from the dais pierced the chambers.
“I withdraw my motion,” Wardell said, drawing applause from those in attendance.
Fellow Councilman Ire Bethea quickly seconded the withdrawal, nixing the proposed amendment.
“When the people who requested the ordinance withdraw it… we brought that forward because it was brought up and the people who brought it didn’t want it anymore,” Wardell said after the meeting.
He still feels the charter should recognize women.
“I think including women in the charter is important. It’s important to recognize half of our population as being people that serve the city,” Wardell said. “But it’s more of, you start to get worried if this is the reaction that this group is going to get and they’re going to spread sorta misinformation and things that aren’t quite right, I didn’t want it to tank other charter amendments that might be on the ballot that are really important.”