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Trans community continues to face adversity despite protections

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 3, 2008

Despite advances in protections for transgender individuals, discrimination is still widespread, according to activists.

"Most of the women of trans experience (designated male at birth) have been fired from one or more jobs due to their trans status," says Gavi Ansara, executive director of Lifelines Rhode Island. Lifelines is the state's only statewide non-profit focused on trans, gender variant and inter-sex concerns.

In 2001 Rhode Island became the second state in the nation--following Minnesota in 1993--to adopt a non-discrimination law that clearly prohibits discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. The law amends all of the state's non-discrimination laws to ensure that transgender people who face discrimination may seek redress in the form of injunctive relief and damages.

However, trans people are still facing harassment at their jobs, even with the legal protections.

Additionally, Ansara has even heard stories about trans people getting ridiculed, harassed and escorted from stores by security when doing their shopping. In many instances, they have been prohibited from using the changing room or bathroom that matches their gender identity.

"Most have experienced sexual and other forms of workplace harassment, though sexual harassment laws do not appear to be applied equally to trans people," notes Ansara. "Many of these women have switched careers or accepted lower-paying work for which they are overqualified due to employment discrimination. For men of trans experience, many work in lower-paying jobs where they do not have to procure a resume."

Ansara continues, "This is a problem for many trans people--even those who pass as the gender with which they identify, the requirement of higher-paying positions to check references means that many have their trans history or status disclosed against their will by previous employers or other references."

"Even the refusal to be lumped into a fixed, binary gender category is often viewed by employers as disruptive, mentally ill or a fetish."

Currently, Massachusetts doesn't have a law on the books to protect the transgender community. The state's current legal language only protects individuals from discrimination to hate crimes based on race, religious creed, color, national origin, sex and sexual orientation.

A bill (H.1722) to outlaw discrimination in the state on the basis of "gender identity or expression" was introduced in 2007 by lead sponsors Representative Carl Sciortino and Representative Byron Rushing. The legislation "sends a clear message that transgender and gender non-conforming people in our communities should be able to work, go to school, and live without fear," read a statement on the Web site of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC).

"I'm optimistic that (H.1722) will pass at some point," says Gunner Scott, head of the MTPC. Scott notes that although Massachusetts is liberal in many ways, there still needs to be work done so that legislators understand that trans people do face unfair treatment by society.

A group called Mass Resistance urged its supporters to oppose the bill, stating "Bill H1722 would add the essentially undefined phrase "gender identity or expression" to many existing Mass. statutes, opening the door to unimaginable perversions played out in public--and the public will have no right to object."

Transgender individuals also encounter difficulties when they approach their health care providers regarding hormones and surgeries. "A lot of trans people pay out of pocket for vital medical expenses," adds Ansara. "The result of this illegal discrimination by the health insurance companies is that trans employees are paid less than other employees, when benefits packages are included in wage calculations."

Ansara notes that although other countries offer legal recognition for individuals who don't conform to a specific gender, they still are subjected to abuse.

"Gender spectrum people face issues beyond those experienced by trans people. Even the refusal to be lumped into a fixed, binary gender category is often viewed by employers as disruptive, mentally ill or a fetish," Ansara concludes.

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Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.