Features

Gender blender

Culture | New laws, new confusion-and unsafe bathrooms?

Issue: "MS-13: Criminals next door," June 18, 2005

Most women in Eugene, Ore.-or any city, for that matter-have no interest in sharing public restrooms with men. But if the city council approves a new ordinance backed by the local Human Rights Commission (HRC), the women of Eugene will be asked to do just that.

The city's current Human Rights Ordinance bars discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, national origin, ethnicity, marital status, familial status, age, sexual orientation, or source of income. The new ordinance would add "gender identity" to that list of personal traits-a provision that would allow bathroom choice based on psychological self-appraisal: Do I feel like a man or a woman?

Eugene is not the first municipality to consider such an ordinance. More than 70 jurisdictions nationwide have already enacted similar code changes, according to HRC member and City Councilor David Kelly.

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The Oregon state legislature tried to beat Eugene to the punch by adding "sexual orientation" to the statewide anti-discrimination code. House bill 2519 and Senate bill 1000 defined sexual orientation as "an individual's actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality or gender identity, regardless of whether the individual's gender identity, appearance, expression or behavior differs from that traditionally associated with the individual's sex at birth." Both bills have fizzled, however.

A similar bill recently fell by one vote in Washington state, possibly due to the efforts of evangelical pastor Ken Hutcherson, who strong-armed Microsoft into withdrawing support for the legislation (see WORLD, May 21, 2005). Ten other states, however, include "sexual orientation" within their anti-discrimination laws. Four states-California, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Rhode Island-and the District of Columbia include "gender identity" among their protected classes.

Without citing specific data, Mr. Kelly claims that nowhere in the nation has this blurring of gender lines sparked increases in sexual predators hanging around public restrooms. He has assured women in Eugene that the ordinance would in no way jeopardize their safety.

Mike Jaskilka, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Eugene, disagrees. His concerns stretch beyond safety: "The women of this community will feel a great sense of loss of safety and privacy. It's a continued coarsening of the whole culture."

The HRC will hear from detractors in a public forum on June 21, but barring any unforeseen surprises will move its ordinance proposal into the city council for a vote this fall. Unlike former Eugene mayor Jim Torrey, who threatened to veto such a package three years ago, current mayor Kitty Piercy accepts the notion of gender identity as legitimate.

Those protected by the clause would include men who think or say they are psychologically women (and vice versa), people preparing for or having received sex-change operations, and cross-dressers or transvestites. "They are attempting to address psychiatric issues with civil-rights resolutions or civil-rights laws, and the two don't mesh," Mr. Jaskilka said.

As is the case in all such codes across the nation, bona fide religious organizations such as churches and schools are not bound to follow the "sexual orientation" or "gender identity" measures in hiring for positions intrinsically connected to their religious mission. But hiring for non-religious work, such as janitorial or bookkeeping duties, falls outside that exemption.

A second exemption allows employers to escape the gender-identity clause if it affects performance. Some employers might argue that a man in lipstick detracts from any customer service position, but the very protection of transgender status undermines such strict application.

With estimates of roughly 100 transgender people living in Eugene, Mr. Jaskilka is far more concerned with the ordinance's cultural impact than its tangible effects. He said the normalizing of "gender-identity disorder" confuses children and teens. "Kids shouldn't have to make decisions like this. There's no reason for a high-school teacher to say to his kids, 'Well, you need to think about whether or not you're really male or female.'"

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