Gender Law Back on the Radar Screen

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), October 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

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.

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