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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Seminole Reluctant to Dive into Rights Issue

[SEMINOLE, FL] - As director of a group that lobbies cities to adopt human rights ordinances that include transgendered people, Janice Carney thought it only made sense that the city she lives in have such a protection.

So she approached the city clerk in Seminole and asked if the town would consider joining cities like Key West, Miami Beach and St. Petersburg in passing a human rights ordinance. But unlike those places, she wants the ordinance in Seminole to include protection for transgendered individuals like herself.

Carney says she was told the City Council would have to talk about such a rule at a workshop. But no date was set.

Instead, Carney received a letter from City Attorney John Elias telling Carney that "Seminole will continue to monitor the issue of sexual orientation in both the United States and the State of Florida and will continue to evaluate the need for legislature action in the City of Seminole."

In other words, Carney said, request denied.

In her view, the issue isn't about sexual orientation. "It's about asking for our basic human rights," said Carney, 53, who was born a male but underwent a sex-change operation several years ago.

"Transgender" is a relatively new term that encompasses all people who identify or express themselves in the gender opposite of their birth. Transgendered people range from those born as one sex who live as another or who have changed their sex through surgery to drag queens to straight cross-dressers.

"To me, it's really important if I can't get that protection in the town I live in, how can I expect to be fighting for it in other towns and cities?" said Carney, director of the Florida Gender Equality Project, whose goal is to educate the public on transgender issues and to advocate for social change.

Actually, Carney doesn't live in Seminole. Yet the apartment complex she has lived in since moving here from New Hampshire a year ago is just blocks from city limits and most likely will be annexed. And like many people who live in unincorporated areas surrounding the city, Carney considers Seminole home.

Americans have struggled with discrimination laws for decades. African-Americans were denied basic rights before civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s. Gays and lesbians have made progress in passing antidiscrimination laws in cities and states. And now transgendered individuals are pushing for equality.

"Right now we are just beginning to come out of the closet and stand up for our rights," said Carney, a disabled Vietnam veteran.

Kathleen Farrell says the transgendered community always has been linked with the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. "Whether this is legitimate, I'm not sure," said Farrell, a therapist who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Cincinnati and counsels transgendered individuals in her St. Petersburg office.

But nevertheless, she said, with the transgendered population being "a very small community with a very small voice," it makes sense they piggyback on to the gays' and lesbians' pursuit for equality.

Most human rights ordinances prohibit sexual or racial discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and lending, but they don't include specific references to transgendered people. In St. Petersburg, the City Council approved a gay rights ordinance last year, but declined to consider protections for the transgendered.

One of the missions of the Tampa-based Florida Gender Equality Project is to encourage cities in Florida to pass human rights ordinances that include protections for transgendered individuals or to add such language to the 13 ordinances that already exist in the state.

Key West's City Commission is poised to add the phrase "gender identity or expression" to the city's human rights ordinance, which already protects people from discrimination based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

If the change receives final approval this week as expected, Key West will be the first city in Florida and the 44th in the United States to offer the protection. Eight counties and two states -- Minnesota and Rhode Island -- also have added similar language to their antidiscrimination laws.

Carney would like Seminole to be on that list as well. Seminole Mayor Dottie Reeder says she is against discrimination of any kind, but prefers that the city follow state and federal laws pertaining to discrimination. Reeder says Carney should focus on getting legislation passed in Tallahassee.

"I can't see our cities creating laws like that," she said.

Reeder is not alone. Many elected officials consider the transgender issue a gray area.

In fact, gender identity disorder is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, along with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. At one time, homosexuality also was listed as a disorder.

Carney says she felt trapped in a male's body since childhood, but gender identity issues weren't talked about then. Carney joined the Army, fought in Vietnam, got married and fathered three children. Six years ago, he started living as a woman. He had surgery and legally changed his name.

Now Carney says all she wants is for transgendered people to be included in the human rights ordinances that protect gays and lesbians. She says she has no problems where she lives, but wants the security of knowing she won't be evicted from her apartment because she is a transsexual.

Carney says she was so discouraged by the city's response that she forwarded the city attorney's letter to Karen M. Doering, a staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and asked her to respond.

Doering wrote to Elias, the city attorney, saying that "many Fortune 500 businesses and technology companies will not even consider relocating to a city that does not have an HRO that would protect its employees from discrimination in these areas."

Most human rights ordinances prohibit housing discrimination, meaning that a landlord, seller, housing association cannot refuse to rent or sell housing to someone simply because of their race, religion, sexual orientation. A place of accommodation typically refers to a place of business, such as a hotel, restaurant or store.

"It certainly would be very courageous for the city of Seminole to step up to the plate and do something that St. Petersburg failed to do last year," said Farrell, the therapist who counsels transgendered people.

Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds says a human rights ordinance that covers the transgendered community could be tough to enforce. He said if such discrimination happens in Seminole, there already are agencies to address it.

Carney says she's used to rejection and realizes her cause will take time. In the meantime, she says she deals with discrimination. She says she's tried to no avail to get a part-time job at three grocery stores.

"I'm sure they checked the Social Security and it came up," she said.

It being her old name: John Joseph Carney.

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