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Gender law back on the radar screen.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Two years after a threatened mayoral veto torpedoed a similar effort, city staff and community activists are working to expand Eugene's anti-discrimination laws to include protections for transgendered people.

Supporters say they are encouraged by the growing number of public bodies - including the University of Oregon - that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and by the increased visibility and activism of local transgendered people.

They're also hopeful that, come next year, a new mayor and City Council will be more open to the idea of extending such protections.

But more than that, "we really want to do what we promised we would do, and that is to provide a lot more education," said Karen Hyatt with the city's human rights program. "We didn't realize it was needed and we found out last time that it was."

That education so far has included diversity training for city employees and contacts with such groups as the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, City Club of Eugene and Temple Beth Israel. The city also plans to host a community meeting on transgender issues on Oct. 18.

The issue surfaced two years ago when Mayor Jim Torrey threatened to veto a package of revisions to the city's human rights code if it included a guarantee of "reasonable accommodations" for transgendered people in buildings open to the public.

The mayor cited concerns about privacy and the potential cost of making accommodations to restrooms, locker rooms and showers. He also said he received a flood of mail from concerned residents about men dressed as women using women's bathrooms.

The council ultimately dropped the language relating to transgendered rights but approved the rest of the package, including a domestic registry for same-sex and other unmarried couples. Councilor David Kelly and the city's Human Rights Commission, among others, vowed to keep the issue alive and ultimately bring it back to the council.

The number of instances of alleged discrimination relating to gender identity is difficult to gauge. Over the past four years the city has received three formal complaints - two of them involving the intake of persons arrested by city police and lodged at the Lane County Jail. That problem has been addressed by establishing a separate room for prisoners who identify themselves as transgendered, Hyatt said.

The third complaint involved an allegation of public harassment, she said.

Anecdotally, the city has heard additional allegations of discrimination around issues of housing, employment, public accommodations and general harassment, Hyatt said. "We also know that people are really nervous about coming forward about these issues," she said.

Based on national projections, the city estimates that at least 100 transgendered people live in Eugene.

Seeking legal protection

So far, little opposition has surfaced to the renewed campaign for legal protection. One ardent critic from two years ago, Bill Northrup, said he doesn't yet have enough information about the city's latest proposal to make a judgment.

As the father of twins, Northrup said he appreciates that unisex bathrooms can be used by families with young children - as well as senior citizens, people with disabilities and transgendered people. Northrup said he could abide efforts to increase the number of such facilities, "so long as no one is asking me to change my beliefs or theology."

Compared with two years ago, the city's current effort has drawn out more transgendered people willing to work for the cause. Maceo Persson, for example, is among at least six transgendered people on the human rights commission's gender identity work group.

Persson, 22, is a senior at the UO and a staff member at Citizens Alliance of Lane County, a local social justice group. Born as a female, Persson considers himself a male and hopes to begin hormonal therapy treatments next week.

Persson said he has not suffered overt discrimination but regularly deals with people who balk at his request to be referred to as male. Most acquaintances, he said, have no idea he is a transgendered person - defined as someone who feels trapped in the wrong gender.

He said he decided to become politically active after the council two years ago approved legal protections for other sexual minorities but not for transgendered people. "Oftentimes, the trans' rights kind of get dropped off," he said. "I realized we're going to have to do a lot of work to get our rights."

Legal protection, he said, would make him feel affirmed and safer. "I would feel I had some legal leverage within the city of Eugene in case something happened," he said.

Toby Hill-Meyer, another member of the city work group, has encountered more direct ridicule as a result of gender identity. A student government senator at the UO, Hill-Meyer was recently mocked in The Commentator, a conservative student newspaper on campus, that used vulgar language in a person-on-the-street parody.

Hill-Meyer, 21, was born male but today identifies as neither male or female. "I don't fit into the available categorizations," said Hill-Meyer, who prefers the term "gender queer."

Hill-Meyer's motivations are also political. "I have a friend, an incoming freshman, who is also gender queer. I'm out (of the closet) in part to let people know it's OK to be gender queer on this campus."

University takes lead

At the UO, Hill-Meyer has solved the problem of public restroom access by memorizing the location of all the unisex bathrooms on campus. The university recently relabeled several single-stall restrooms by removing "Men" and "Women" nameplates and identifying them as available to all.

In the culmination of a 13-month process, the UO this month changed its equal opportunity statement to reflect that the university will not discriminate in education or employment on the basis of "gender identity" or "gender expression" - in addition to the previous categories of race, color, sex, national origin, age, religion, marital status, disability, veteran status or sexual orientation.

The change affirms a commitment first made by university officials in 2000, said Chicora Martin, director of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Education and Support Services office on campus.

Plans include publishing a map showing the location of all unisex bathrooms on campus, Martin said.

The university has received no complaints about men dressing as women to prey in women's restrooms, Martin said. More common, she said, are complaints from transgendered students and students with nontraditional expressions of gender - women with short hair or men with long hair, for example - who say they've been challenged for using the "wrong" restroom.

One woman with short hair reported being pulled out of a bathroom by her backpack, by a female assailant who perceived her to be male, Martin said.

Current state law does not prohibit anyone from using a restroom of choice. "If anyone's harassing someone in a bathroom, that's an issue regardless of gender," Martin said. "We can't confuse inappropriate behavior with the assumption that anyone who's transgendered is going to have that behavior. The idea that transgendered people are predators is statistically not true."

The cost to the university in extending anti-discrimination protection has so far been limited to relabeling restrooms and publishing literature with the new equal opportunity statement, Martin said. Some accommodations have been made to residence hall restrooms, and future buildings on campus could include more unisex bathrooms.

Martin said she is proud of the university's leadership on the issue. Other demonstrations of support, she said, include the creation last year of a new administrative post - vice provost for institutional equity and diversity - and the hiring of a part-time doctor at the Student Health Center who can assist transgendered students with hormone therapy. Also, application forms for UO student housing now ask students to list their gender, rather than check a box marked "M" or "F."

More laws on the books

Away from campus, a total of 68 governmental jurisdictions, including four states, have laws that specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. In Oregon, that includes two counties and four cities - with Bend joining the fold this past July.

The Central Oregon city was spurred by an incident in which two gay men were assaulted at a Bend restaurant, said City Recorder Patty Stell. A local group, the Coalition for Human Dignity, pushed for the "equal rights" ordinance, and a council-appointed panel crafted the language before councilors approved the measure 7-0, Stell said.

The law initially drew opposition from the Bend Chamber of Commerce, which was concerned about transgendered people filing "frivolous" lawsuits against employers, Stell said. A four-hour public hearing drew divided testimony, and a coalition of churches sought to refer the measure to the ballot but failed to collect enough petition signatures, she said.

Opposition to the law since its passage has been muted, and no one filed for office against four incumbent councilors over the issue, Stell said.

The Bend law's prohibitions don't apply to religious organizations, and don't prevent an employer "from enforcing an otherwise valid dress code." Stell said she considers the law to be a model ordinance.

As for what new law may or may not emerge in Eugene, the jury is still out. Among those likely to have a say is Kitty Piercy, expected to take the reins as mayor in January. Piercy said she is open to the issue and looking forward to seeing what suggestions come forward from the gender identity work group.

"I want to find ways to accommodate all our citizens," she said. "My belief is the more we know, the less fear we have about things."

TRANSGENDER ISSUES TRAINING

Human Rights Commission sponsors community forum

When/where: 6 p.m., Oct. 18, Amazon Community Center, 2700 Hilyard St.

More information: 682-5177

GENDER IDENTITY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAWS

Protection offered in 68 cities, counties and states

State laws: California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island

Laws in Oregon: Bend (passed in 2004), Lake Oswego (2003), Salem (2002), Multnomah County (2001), Portland (2000), Benton County (1998)

- National Center for Transgender Equality

DEFINITIONS

Transgender: An umbrella term to describe a full range of individuals with conflicts or questions about their gender - including pre-operative and post-operative transsexuals; transsexuals who have no desire for sex reassignment surgery; male and female transvestites (cross-dressers) and impersonators. More specifically, it sometimes refers to transsexuals who choose to live as the opposite gender on a full-time basis but do not wish to undergo surgery.

Transsexual: A person who is predisposed to identify with the opposite sex, or who has undergone surgery and hormone injections to effect a change of sex

Gender identity: A person's innate sense of gender, regardless of their biological sex at birth

Gender expression: External representation of one's gender identity, such as dress, mannerisms, hair style and speech

- "True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism"; New World Dictionary; Eugene Human Rights Commission Gender Identity Work Group; University of Oregon Student Life Office
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Title Annotation:Minorities; Eugene advocates revive their quest for language that prohibits discrimination against transgendered people
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 4, 2004
Words:1796
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