Features

Transgender retreat

Oregon | Public opposition thwarts push for coed toilets and showers

Issue: "Looking for votes," March 11, 2006

Unlike her conservative predecessor, Eugene, Ore., mayor Kitty Piercy supports efforts to include gender identity within the local anti-discrimination code. The city council in this college town is also sympathetic to that cause. With such political support, transgender rights activists appeared destined for victory in a heated public debate.

Then, in a move that left many residents bewildered, the Lane Gender Task Force (LGTF) called on Eugene's Human Rights Commission (HRC) "to refrain from recommending a code revision to the city council for its consideration at this time." The Feb. 15 letter expressed concern that "the majority of people do not understand gender identity issues," increasing the likelihood that transgendering "will be grossly distorted in the press of the public debate during the code revision effort." The HRC honored that request a week later, citing public confusion.

But the matter in question is fairly simple: Gender identity legal protection would apply to men who believe they are psychologically women (and vice versa), people preparing for or having received sex-change operations, and cross-dressers or transvestites. A change in the code would outlaw discrimination against such individuals in housing, employment, and public accommodations-including public bathrooms and school locker rooms. Eugene residents have debated such changes since 2002 ("Gender blender," June 18, 2005).

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Similar provisions have passed in at least 80 other cities, counties, and states throughout the country. Last month, Washington became the 17th state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and the seventh state to include the specific term "gender identity" within its legislation. So why did Eugene back off, and what lessons does that hesitation hold for opponents of transgenderism in other communities?

One big factor was the lack of consensus among gender identity advocates over whether to require documentation of legal gender status from transgendered people before they are allowed to use the public shower, locker, or bathroom of their choice. Maceo Persson, a transgendered college student and spokesman for the LGTF, told the Eugene Register-Guard that such internal disagreement played a role in the organization's strategic decision.

Another factor was fear of a public backlash, according to Eugene resident Nancy Hansen, who helped spearhead Citizens for Public Responsibility in an effort to block the gender identity code revision. Washington state's new gender identity protection law has provoked a referendum and an initiative to repeal the new law this fall. Transgender rights supporters have typically sought to keep such issues out of the hands of voters, fearing a definitive public statement might devastate the cause for years to come.

That the LGTF conducted a public survey prior to reversing its stance appears to confirm such concerns. "Why would they survey the community if all they have to do is convince the city council?" Ms. Hansen asked rhetorically. "They had it in the bag."

Regardless of internal dissension and external opposition, the LGTF plans a further push. "This is not an end to our effort to revise the city's human rights ordinance, but a necessary step in that journey," the task force explained in its letter, requesting assistance from the HRC to continue "the deeper and broader public education that this fundamental human rights issue deserves."

Such "public education" is likely to continue at the state level. Although the Oregon legislature has refused to pass transgendering bills, Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed an executive order in early February creating a statewide task force to examine gender identity discrimination. Oregon could well become the eighth state to take the gender identity plunge, rendering moot the fight in any particular municipality.

But transgendering failure for now in a city with decidedly left-leaning political tendencies reflects the extent of unchanging public opposition and should give reality-based citizens hope. Regardless of political persuasion, most folks continue to know instinctively that men and women, boys and girls, are fundamentally different-and belong in separate bathrooms.

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