Transgender Activists See Gains in their Battle Against Bias
VIOLENCE AGAINST their disparate community persists; so do legal setbacks. Yet these are heady days for transgender activists as they strengthen their lobbying efforts and gain civil rights protections in city after city.
"We have a lot of work to do, but we are winning," said Mara Keisling, an activist from Harrisburg, Pa., who is helping establish a new transgender-rights center in Washington, D.C.
The past year was one of pronounced highs and lows for the movement.
On the downside, transgender people commemorated 25 members of their community killed during the previous year in what activists considered to be hate crimes.
Activists also seethed over a federal judge's ruling in September that a trucker fired because he wore women's clothes after hours was not protected by the federal law against sex discrimination. The married trucker, Peter Oiler, was dismissed by the Winn-Dixie grocery chain after telling a supervisor he occasionally went out in public dressed in wig, makeup and women's clothes.
Offsetting those developments, transgender-rights advocates won an unprecedented series of political victories last year. The governing councils of 14 cities and counties -- including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New York and Philadelphia -- voted to include transgender people among the groups protected by local nondiscrimination laws.
In no previous year had more than six jurisdictions taken such action, according to the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition. It says seven counties, 44 cities and two states -- Minnesota and Rhode Island -- now have explicit civil rights protections for transgender people in housing, employment and other areas.
"This is the best year we've ever had," said Sarah DePalma, a Houston-based activist. "Where we are still lacking is at the state level, but it's always been our goal to work from the local level up."
Another positive development, transgender activists said, is improved relations with major gay rights organizations.
"Some in the gay community still think they should have nothing to do with us, that we hurt their cause, but they're becoming fewer and fewer," DePalma said.
One of the most influential gay rights groups, the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, bolstered its standing with transgender activists this year by commissioning what it said was the first national survey of public attitudes toward transgender people.
The survey found majority support for the rights of transgender people to attend school and hold most jobs, but not jobs as elementary school teachers or day-care workers. Roughly one-third of the respondents said being transgender is morally wrong.
Human Rights Campaign spokesman David Smith said he was optimistic that gay-rights and transgender activists -- though sometimes differing on tactics -- could work in tandem to increase public understanding of their causes.
"We're all united about what the goal is, and that's equality under the law," he said.
Keisling said the improved relations with gay rights groups coincided with an increasing sense of political self-reliance among transgender activists.
"The public understands more and more clearly that we exist," said Keisling, a male-to-female transsexual who co-chairs the Pennsylvania Gender Rights Coalition. "What they don't see is that there is still a lot of violence towards us, and a lot of discrimination. Most people mistakenly think almost everybody is protected by nondiscrimination laws." The transgender community is diverse, with the common denominator that its members, by and large, feel they were born the wrong sex. It encompasses transsexuals, cross-dressers and people who live as members of the other gender but -- unlike transsexuals -- don't undergo surgery.
Conservative groups opposed to gay rights legislation also oppose moves to codify transgender rights, but they do not equate the two movements.
John Paulk, gender-issues analyst for the Christian ministry Focus on the Family, said transgender people have a treatable mental disorder and don't constitute a group that merits specific civil rights protections.
"Where do you close the door to other mental problems?" Paulk asked. "Can someone say, 'I'm schizophrenic, I should have my own bathroom'?"
Use of public bathrooms and showers is a perennially thorny issue for transsexuals; opponents of transgender rights often raise the specter of men dressed as women using women's bathrooms. Numerous businesses and colleges have addressed the matter by providing some one-person, unisex bathrooms.
"It's frustrating that this issue has become so prominent," said Paisley Currah, a Brooklyn College political science professor who heads the Transgender Law and Policy Institute.
"Some politicians will support a transgender rights law, and yet don't want a transsexual in their bathroom," she said. "There's this absurd fear there will be men who cross-dress to go into bathrooms and rape women."
Transgender activists are tackling an array of other challenges. Among them:
? Uncertainty about the validity of marriages involving transsexuals. Some courts have recognized such marriages, but the Kansas Supreme Court ruled this year that the marriage of a male-to-female transsexual and her husband was invalid, even though the wife had changed gender many years before the marriage.
? Parental rights. Some courts have terminated the parental rights of transgender people, or denied them visitation rights following a divorce. Though transgender people are not prohibited from adopting, they sometimes find their sexuality is viewed negatively by adoption agencies.
? Risk of violence against transgender convicts who are placed in prisons according to their gender at birth, rather than the gender they identify with. In August, a Canadian filed an $18 million lawsuit against U.S. and Montana officials for abuse allegedly suffered when sent to Montana's prison for men while in the process of transforming into a woman.
? Difficulties changing the sex designation on birth certificates and driver's licenses. In Bedford, Pa., a truck driver who changed from female to male was rebuffed by a judge in November when he sought to change his birth certificate and license.
"Every time I get stopped for safety checks . . . they pick up on the fact that my license says I'm a female and I look like a male," said Daniel MacNeal.