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Rights problematic for transgendered


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 6, 2002

There are some columns you write knowing that 20 years later you might be ashamed at their shortsightedness. This might be one of those. We'll see.

There are some columns you write knowing that 20 years later you might be ashamed at their shortsightedness. This might be one of those. We'll see.

For now, at least, I will not count myself as a supporter of the efforts of the transgendered community to outlaw the employment discrimination they undoubtedly suffer. Archie Bunker, save a place on the Barcalounger for me. I'm with you on this.

Increasingly, gay and lesbian rights groups are adding transgendered rights to their bailiwick. The transgendered include transsexuals -- people who feel as though they were born in the wrong body, and cross-dressers -- predominantly, but not exclusively, heterosexual men who feel compelled to dress like women. While transsexuality seems to have a biological or physical basis, the cause of cross-dressing is more scientifically elusive, though it too seems hard-wired. According to Dr. Walter Bockting, coordinator of transgender health services at the University of Minnesota, some men cross-dress for sexual titillation but the majority do it uncontrollably to assert a fundamental aspect of their identity. "Out of my clinical experience," said Bockting, ". . . people have these feelings so consistently from early childhood on, it just seems to be the spirit of that person."

Already 37 localities and as well as Minnesota and Rhode Island have passed some form of antidiscrimination protection for transgendered individuals. In St. Petersburg, the City Council on Thursday approved a gay rights ordinance, but declined to consider protections for the transgendered.

Supporters say that while the transgendered make up a tiny portion of the population -- estimates are that one in 10,000 Americans are cross-dressers and between 30,000 and 60,000 are transsexuals -- they are disproportionately discriminated against in every aspect of life. Karen Doering, legal director of Equality Florida's Legal Advocacy Project, equates the struggle for transgendered rights with the first years of the gay and lesbian rights movement, which was initially widely despised but gained purchase after education led to greater understanding and tolerance.

She makes a point. There was tremendous resistance at first to employment discrimination protections for gays and lesbians. But I see a distinction between their struggle and that of the transgendered. Part of the growing acceptance of homosexuality was a recognition that gays and lesbians are not just the flamboyant extroverts we see strutting in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, they are our neighbors, relatives, friends and co-workers. Society came to learn that most gays and lesbians maintained social norms of behavior, except of course in their intimate and family lives -- the areas we grant the most personal liberty and room for difference. That's not true of the transgendered. They portray their difference in a highly visual and therefore confrontational way, they wear it on their sleeve, so to speak. While those who flout gender lines of dress in public should have the right to do so safely and without the threat of violence, is it fair to force employers to accept that behavior in the workplace?

Gays and lesbians deserved legal protection because they were being unjustly fired for the way they lived their lives outside the work environment. Cross-dressers and transsexuals want the law to protect their outward displays of gender bending in the work environment. I personally see a big difference here. At banks, law firms, public schools and other places of employment, employers should be able to define standards of appropriate attire and behavior. In truth, I hope most employers will accept a cross-dressing employee, I just don't think the law should require it.

Bathroom choice is an issue, too. For safety and identity reasons, cross-dressing men and transsexuals who view themselves as women, will typically use the women's restroom. Women, however, may not feel so comfortable with that choice. Would an antidiscrimination law make an employer liable for barring any but those with female genitalia from the women's room?

I also wonder just how far the law should reach to protect people with a challenging self-image? In the March issue of Vanity Fair, an article on "furries" described a community of people (men, mostly) who feel they are animals trapped in a human body. They attend conferences where dressing as a fox, raccoon or wolf is an act of self-identity. "I am a tiger in a human body," said one conferee, expressing the views of many.

Is this the rumblings of a nascent political movement?

I don't want to underplay the problems of the transgendered. Their lives, their every-day-waking-up-and-making-a-living lives, must be very difficult. Discrimination, not to mention menace, must be a constant factor. Still, it should not be the legal obligation of the nation's employers to be so out in front of the curve that when they turn around, normative society has completely disappeared from view.

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