A Victory for Boston's Transgender Population
While local and national elections seized the limelight last month, Mayor Thomas Menino quietly signed a new city ordinance that propels Boston to the forefront of protecting its citizens from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.
As a result of this forward-thinking decision on the part of the mayor and nine members of the City Council, Boston becomes the 50th jurisdiction in the country, including 42 cities, six counties, and two states that have recognized the irrationality of prejudice on the basis of gender identity and expression and acted unequivocally to stop it. Gender identity refers to one's internal sense of oneself as a man or a woman while gender expression refers to the external characteristics (dress, hair, mannerisms) that manifest that identity. Transgender people are those who were born anatomically female but identify as men or born anatomically male but identify as women. Some seek surgical interventions to bring their anatomy into conformance with their identity, while others just choose new names and clothing that correspond to their sense of themselves as male or female.
Even non-transgender people may be victims of discrimination because they defy commonly held expectations about masculinity and femininity, such as the man who is fired because he is "effeminate" or the woman denied a promotion because she is "too masculine." The ordinance protects everyone who lives in or visits Boston from discrimination on the basis of gender identity in housing, employment, public accommodations, educational opportunities, and lending. Its provisions implicitly recognize, that like discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, sex, and sexual orientation, discrimination based on gender identity or expression is senseless and hurtful.
The one member of the Boston City Council who manifested an underdeveloped sense of humanity was James Kelly. After losing the vote, 9-1, the mystified councilor asked, "If I put on a dress and heels and lipstick, am I a woman?" But Kelly misses the point. The question is whether, if he puts on a dress, heels, and lipstick, he should be discriminated against in housing, employment, public accommodations, and so on.
Gender identity is not typically a casual matter of mood or whimsy, but something that people feel deeply - a point that members of the transgender community appreciate perhaps more than anyone else. Putting on a dress might seem absurd to the compassion-challenged councilor, but when a person is willing to risk familial and social rejection, discrimination, and even personal safety to do it, doesn't it make sense that the inclination must be sincerely and profoundly felt?
Fortunately, nine members of the City Council and the mayor agree. They acted swiftly and unambiguously to ensure that businesses, universities, and other local institutions in our city do not discriminate.
As with all measures that combat prejudice and promote diversity, the ordinance promises to benefit local institutions by enhancing their ability to attract the best candidates for work and study, including those to whom it is important to live in a place known for its broad acceptance of difference. In this way, the ordinance serves not only transgender Bostonians, but all members of our community.
Libby Adler is an assistant professor of law at Northeastern University.