Transgendered People Look to Expand Their Civil Rights
[DALLAS, TX] - Cities across the United States are crossing one of the last civil rights frontiers, extending employment, housing and public accommodation protections to transgendered people.
Dallas, New York and Philadelphia have each passed such anti-discrimination ordinances within the last three months, bringing the total to 46 U.S. cities and four states across the country.
Most have been enacted within the last three years, with many activists in part crediting a rise in political organizing by gender activists since the mid-1990s and the Internet-fueled rise of community organizing for transgendered people.
They say they also have been helped by shifting public awareness and understanding fueled by movies such as the Oscar-winning Boys Don't Cry and Southern Comfort, winner of the 2001 best documentary award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Companies ranging from Aetna to Apple, Lucent Technologies, American Airlines, Xerox and Intel have included protection of the transgendered in their anti-discrimination policies, and corporate sponsors are sending money and representatives to transgendered community events in large cities such as Houston.
"I really think more and more that public and business entities are recognizing that being transgendered is not a moral failing. It's a condition that you have," said veteran Richardson Police Officer Diana Powe, who changed her identity to female in 2000 with support of her chief.
The term transgendered covers a broad spectrum of gender issues, including transsexuals, or individuals found to have been born with physical attributes of one gender and psychological attributes of the other, to cross-dressers and the intersexed, individuals born with some degree of both male and female sexual organs.
Since the late 1960s, transsexuals in whom gender identity disorder has been formally diagnosed have been able to undergo surgery to change their sex organs and appearance. But community leaders say bias and ignorance about the medical nature of condition meant that taking on a new sexual identity meant the loss of jobs, families, friends and virtually all else associated with the old.
"This has always been a misunderstood and little known phenomenon. And a lot of the bias against us is just the fear of other. We mess with people's primary gender concepts," said Vanessa Edwards Foster of Houston, a board member and spokeswoman for the National Transgendered Advocacy Coalition.
"A lot of folks assume it's very capricious, that we decide on a whim, 'I'm going to be a woman,' " she said. "The fact is that it is a very agonizing decision. It's a tremendous leap, and there's still not much of a safety net."
Making the transition once always meant "going stealth," or hiding every aspect of one's former life, and Ms. Foster and other activists say that many transgendered people in Texas still turn their lives upside down to avoid being found out.
"I know a number of teachers around the state--35 to 40. They change cities. They change records. They get the gender changed on their employment records. They do it in total secrecy. They totally turn their lives upside down out of necessity," said Houston activist Sara DePalma. "They're not going to be honest and open about it. They live in terror of being outed."
She and others said that fear has begun to lift in recent years, as a national web of support and advocacy groups began coalescing on the Internet in the mid-90s and gay and lesbian rights issues began drawing increasing public attention and support.
"I think it's accurate to say that we're now probably where the gay and lesbian communities were 20 years ago," Ms. Foster said.
She and others estimate that as many as a third of transgendered people who undergo identity changes now do so relatively openly and manage to keep their jobs.
Stephanie Gonzalez, an assistant city attorney in Lewisville, said she was greeted widely with concern and support after a recent return to work after sex change surgery. City officials there issued a statement to explain what had happened.
"This is 2002, and it's not a new concept," Ms. Gonzalez said. "I think it's becoming more accepted as we get more educated and understand that this is a medical condition."
But community activists say many who make the change on the job still face hurdles as basic as where they can use office bathrooms.
They note that discomfort with gender identity issues is still so common that gay and lesbian activists often jettison efforts to add protection for the transgendered to try to make anti-discrimination and hate-crimes measures passed.
One New York gay lobbying group has fought for several years to keep such protections out of bills aimed at outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Ms. Foster said the hate crime bill passed by the Texas Legislature in 2001 excluded bias crimes against the transgendered because supporters feared the bill would otherwise be torpedoed.
Ms. DePalma said she and other Texas transgender activists have repeatedly tried without success to convince state lawmakers of the need for legal protections to ensure such basic rights as being able to get a driver's license or state ID card with the proper sex designation.
"They're just not interested in hearing about it," she said. "They just laugh."
Added Ms. Foster, "There are the beginnings of a positive trend, but it's is a very mixed bag."