By Daniel Sorid
Source: © 2003 Reuters
Corporations and lawmakers are expanding protections against sexual harassment and discrimination to cover transsexuals, cross-dressers and others who fall outside the traditional notions of gender identity.
In the last two years, 19 companies in the Fortune 500 – including Bank One Corp. and Microsoft Corp. – have banned discrimination based on “gender identity and expression.” Sixty-five cities and counties have similar protections, with 16 ordinances passed in 2002.
The measures extend protections to men perceived as effeminate and women viewed as masculine.
“There is a sense that laws specifically based on sexual orientation are not capturing everyone,” said Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director for workplace issues at the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest lesbian and gay political organization.
In August, California’s recalled governor, Gray Davis, signed legislation banning discrimination in housing and employment based on gender stereotypes or transgendered status. Three other states – Minnesota, Rhode Island and New Mexico – have similar protections.
Another four states – New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts – have had either court or administrative rulings that could be interpreted as banning discrimination against gender expression or status as a transsexual, according to Human Rights Campaign.
Socially conservative groups have opposed the measures, arguing they force owners of religious businesses to support a way of life they morally oppose, and would hold up transsexuals as role models for children.
At some companies, however, the protections are seen as a straightforward way to comply with a patchwork of statutes that protect transsexuals in some cities and states, as well as to reduce taunting and discrimination against those whose appearances clash with more traditional beliefs.
Proponents see the trend as a natural progression from the protections for women and gays against harassment.
“Gender identity and expression was the next step,” said Maria Campbell, director of diversity at SC Johnson & Son, based in Racine, Wisconsin.
Transsexuals are disproportionately pushed out of jobs, kicked out of housing and beaten up or murdered, according to studies. Excluded from a society confused and sometimes disgusted by their way of living, they tend to get less education and are more likely to lack health insurance, studies show.
A survey funded by the District of Columbia in 2000 showed that most “gender variant” residents earned less than $10,000 a year, with one in three saying they had been a victim of violence or crime brought on by hatred of gays or transsexuals.
In a poll of 392 male-to-female transsexuals in San Francisco in 1997, nearly half the respondents reported facing job discrimination, while a quarter said they faced housing discrimination.
“Even though it’s only a patchwork, at this point this is how civil rights proceeds,” said Riki Wilchins, executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition in Washington, D.C. “Ten years ago there was none of this. All this has happened very quickly.”
A growing sense of protection among transsexual workers is tangible in a city like San Francisco, considered one of the country’s most liberal places to live. Indicative of that is the experience of Ina Fried, a technology reporter who in May came out to colleagues and business contacts as transsexual.
Fried (pronounced Freed), who was born male and had always used the name Ian at work, said she wanted to feel “whole” in her life.
Her employer, CNET Networks Inc., said it has made a conscious effort to accommodate employees “transitioning” from one gender to another. When designing its new headquarters building in San Francisco, for instance, it included unisex bathrooms to accommodate transgendered employees.
“I think I’ve been very lucky,” Fried said in an interview. “For a lot of people the experience of being transgendered is still greatly more difficult.”
The term “transgender” is often a term appended to the name of gay and lesbian groups, even though many transsexuals and cross-dressers do not consider themselves gay. But it is the gay community’s success gaining protection and prominence in government and private-sector jobs in recent decades that has, in part, led to calls for expanded transgender protections.
“Transgender issues are really seen as the next frontier, as a way to really make the workplace safe for everyone,” said Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, based in San Francisco.
“People are finally much more comfortable with the words gay and lesbian,” Berry added. “They’re not familiar with what the word transgender even means, and sometimes people’s only connection is either drag queens, prostitution or some movie.”