Jesus Wore a Skirt! 

Mayor Katz Plans to Expand Civil Rights Laws to Protect Transsexuals

IF VERA KATZ has her way, transsexual females will finally be able to wear skirts to work and use the bathrooms they want to; Katz is working with commissioner Dan Saltzman to change Portland's civil rights ordinance in order to protect transgendered and transsexual people. Under the new law, employers must allow people to dress "according to the gender they consistently identify with."

With a city council meeting looming, the proposed law is in the final stretch towards becoming a reality. Ultimately, approval rests on the shoulders of city council, who will listen to concerned citizens speak at a public hearing on December 13 at 10:20 am in City Hall's chambers.

But as simple as the equalities guaranteed by this law appear, public response to the proposed change has uncovered a widespread unease throughout Portland with transsexuality. Last week, for example, Lars Larson of radio station KXL likened the change to the opening of a Pandora's box of fetishes. Indeed, his radio show on the topic drew heated comments. Plus, after asking for initial public feedback on the issue, Katz' office has received approximately 50 opinions from the public--more than half opposing the ordinance change.

"No more protected species," reads one complaint. "These are sick misfits."

Others take a more sardonic view: "Why stop at transgender discrimination? I say if a guy wants to wear ladies' panties and falsies to work, go for it. He ought to be able to masturbate at his desk or on the sidewalk out in front of his place of employment, too."

Regardless, advocates remain confident. "Of course some people will have transphobic responses like this," says Lori Buckwalter, executive director of It's Time Oregon!, a transgender advocacy group. "People are always going to be afraid of changes within gender roles."

Buckwalter also explains that the ordinance is limited in the people that it will cover--it is not permission for people to occasionally cross-dress at work or simply make the bathrooms a gender free-for-all. "A person's consistent, responsible expression of their identity is primary at work and in such areas as rest room use. This respects everyone's safety and rights," explains Buckwalter.

But while issues regarding opening up bathrooms and locker rooms are the most heated, Buckwalter points out that they are much less significant than the other guarantees the ordinance gives transpeople. "The basic guarantee of housing and employment for transgender and transsexual individuals is an enormous achievement," she explains. "One that most transpeople don't have."

Though no civil rights laws for transgendered people have been passed at any state level, similar laws have been enacted in about a dozen cities. Minneapolis was the first to include transgendered people in their human rights laws in 1975. In Oregon, Portland would join primarily rural Benton County as the only places in the state that recognize legal privileges for transgender individuals.

For nearly the past decade, the city of San Francisco has operated under a law similar to the one proposed in Portland. "This law is our only means of protecting a population of people who normally experience heavy discrimination," explained Marcus Arana, discrimination investigator for the city of San Francisco. "For the first time we have a way of making it illegal to fire people or refuse to house them because of gender identity." Likewise, the proposed change in Portland will help pave the way to enforce more complete legal equality for transsexuals and transgenders.

In the past, Portland's other protective clauses have set the groundwork for lawsuits to eradicate unfair treatment based on sexuality. In 1996, David Sims sued Besaw's Café for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But, once the case left the local level, it was initially thrown out. Yet, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the ordinance, setting precedence for gays and lesbians to sue if they have been discriminated against in the work place in Portland. Buckwalter hopes this change will set a similar precedent for gender identity discrimination.

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