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City rethinks transgender policy.

Byline: Edward Russo The Register-Guard

Dropped three years ago, an effort to extend Eugene's civil rights protections to transgendered people is expected to resurface in the coming weeks, with City Council debate set for the spring.

Advocates on the city's Human Rights Commission have a new strategy compared to 2002, when a similar proposal drew a threatened mayoral veto and caused them to retreat. And unlike before, advocates have a like-minded person in the mayor's chair.

"I, like the members of the Human Rights Commission, am interested in ensuring that all our citizens are treated equitably and justly," Mayor Kitty Piercy said. "I am, therefore, open to a discussion about adding gender identity to the list of protected classes."

Piercy, in consultation with City Manager Dennis Taylor, agreed to put the topic on the City Council agenda for May.

Transgender describes a range of people with conflicts or questions about their gender. Those include people who are born male but think of themselves as female, or vice versa; people who are preparing for a sex change operation or have had a sex change; and transvestites, or cross-dressers.

Extending the city's civil rights protections to transgendered people could have symbolic and real effects.

It would establish an anti-bias standard and give transgendered people a legal leg to stand on if they encounter discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

But, as in the clash three years ago, a push for transgender rights could raise concerns among residents uncomfortable with extending such protections, and business owners uncertain about how the law would affect them.

Some religious groups are among the opponents.

The proposal "will raise a tremendous amount of response from the citizens" who would view it as "not about equal rights for everyone, but about the invasions of my private space and the natural roles that we all have been given," said Mike Jaskilka, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Eugene.

During the City Council's 2002 debate on whether to create a domestic partner registry for gay couples, Human Rights Commission members tried to add "gender identity" to the list of protected classes. That meant transgendered people would have been covered under the city's anti-discrimination laws.

Then-Mayor Jim Torrey threatened to veto the proposals, including the domestic partner registry, if transgender protections remained. Councilors ultimately dropped the transgender language but approved the domestic partner registry. Councilor David Kelly and human rights commissioners vowed to keep the issue alive.

The restroom issue

To avoid similar opposition this year, human rights commissioners are launching an outreach effort before the City Council takes up the issue.

Commissioners will meet with city councilors, business owners, church leaders and anyone else who wants to learn about the yet-to-be-developed code change. After the language is written in the next several weeks, the commission plans to have a pair of community forums on the topic: one in mid-March and another before the City Council public hearing.

"There is a lot of fear in our community about anybody that is different, whether it's race, what they look like, sexual orientation, or their gender," said Sara Rich, human rights commission chairperson. "By doing these education pieces, it dispels the myths" about transgendered people, she said.

The city estimates that at least 100 transgendered people live in Eugene. Official complaints about discrimination against transgendered people are few, but "transgendered people do not feel protected by the existing city code," Rich said.

Among the flash points has been use of bathrooms in public areas and workplaces. No one has figured out how to address that flawlessly.

The code change proposal in 2002 would have required "reasonable accommodations" for transgendered people in buildings open to the public. Some residents worried that the law change would allow men who feel they are female to use women's restrooms or locker rooms, and thereby frighten or victimize women and children.

The worries remain, said Jaskilka, the pastor.

"How do you keep a man out of a women's restroom when he says that he is transgendered?" Jaskilka said.

"What do you do when he feels like it today, but not tomorrow? That kind of vagueness can be a problem."

Adding gender identify language to the city code would allow transgendered people to use restrooms reserved for the gender they identify with, said Karen Hyatt, a city employee and a liaison to the human rights commission's gender identity work group.

The University of Oregon last fall changed its equal opportunity statement to include gender identity. It is trying to deal with restroom access issues by converting a dozen single-toilet restrooms - previously reserved for either women or men - for use by both sexes.

Hyatt said that if employees are uncomfortable with sharing a male-only or female-only bathroom with a transgendered person, the business could have a "privacy sign" available outside the bathroom that says the bathroom is in use. The sign could be used by a transgendered person who wants to inform co-workers that he or she is in the bathroom, or someone who doesn't want to share the bathroom with a transgendered person.

Rich, the Human Rights Commission chairperson and a family therapist, said restroom use by transgendered people is an "invalid concern."

"National research numbers show that transgendered people do not victimize women and children," she said. "People say transgendered people are pedophiles, but statistics show that most pedophiles are white, heterosexual males."

Salem, Bend have protections

The process to write new city code language will start next Thursday, during a meeting of the city's gender identity work group.

The 30-member committee is expected to send a proposal to the Human Rights Commission on March 4. A community forum on the proposal will take place in mid-March, followed by another in late April or May.

A public hearing before the City Council is set for May 23.

In Oregon, two counties and four cities, including Salem and Bend, have added transgender protections to their human rights codes.

Hyatt, the city staffer to the gender identify work group, said much of the previous opposition came from church leaders from inside and outside Eugene.

Pastors, including those who opposed the earlier code changes, will be notified about the upcoming public meetings, she said.

Piercy said people will have many questions.

"I have confidence that listening to concerns and answering questions will lead to recommendations that are sensitive to the needs of our community," she said.
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Title Annotation:Government; A sympathetic mayor and a new City Council will revisit proposed protections that drew protests in the past
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 27, 2005
Words:1066
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