February 27, 2004

County Protects Gender I.D.

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Tompkins County Legislature passed a law on Feb. 17 to make discrimination on the basis of “gender identity and expression,” including transsexuality, illegal. The legislation revised a law enacted in 1991 that banned discrimination due to sexual orientation.

Vote

The revision passed by a vote of 11-4, with all of the Democratic legislators voting in favor and all of the Republicans against. A common opinion among the dissenters was that the government should not be involved either way in the issue.

Private Matter

“I don’t think that government has any business sticking their nose in that situation,” said Thomas Todd (R-6th). “We’re talking about something that I believe is very private.”

Tim Joseph (D-12th), legislature chair, felt that the law was needed “because transsexuals face a lot of discrimination.” He said that the legislation was a recognition of a need that already existed, rather than a reaction to a new need to protect transsexuals and others.

Exceptions

Joseph added that non-standard gender identity was not included in the original law for several reasons. The gay community, which Joseph said was not united with the transsexual community at the time, did not wish to push for too much at once, while many straight people had not even thought of including transsexuals in that legislation.

Public Reaction

Members of the public voiced their opinions before the legislature voted on the law. Opinions were raised both for and against the revision, but Joseph estimated that there were roughly twice as many for it as there were against. He also said that the discussion was “civilized and respectful” and that those opposed to the law did not express feelings against transgendered individuals but focused instead on whether the government should extend special rights to one segment of society.

Parallels

Joseph drew parallels to discussions in the 1950s concerning race, noting that he “couldn’t help hearing the echoes,” especially in regards to concerns such as increased integration of transsexuals into public schools.

George Totman (R-9th) said that while “everyone, as long as they don’t hurt their neighbors, can do whatever they want to do in their own lives,” he did not feel that transsexuals should receive special protection.

“The problem is [that] they want us to pass laws protecting them going into ladies’ rooms,” Totman said.

Totman said that he has received unanimous support for his vote from his constituents in Groton, but added, “If I lived in the city of Ithaca, I’d probably be hung up by my feet.”

Reaction

Erica Kagan ’05, president of Direct Action to Stop Homophobia, is collecting petitions and speaking with administrators and trustees to try to get Cornell to pass a similar policy. She said that while Tompkins County law would protect any Cornell students who faced discrimination due to their gender identity, the University should issue such a policy as “a symbolic statement of support.”

According to Kagan, discrimination against transsexuals is a problem on campus. She said that at a teach-in she attended, many transsexuals said that they end up withdrawing from society.

“You feel safer if you’re invisible,” Kagan said, “but at the same time, people don’t know who you are.”

According to Gwendolyn Dean, coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center at Cornell, there has not been much talk of a policy specifically targeted for transsexuals at Cornell since the legislature’s vote two Tuesdays ago. She said that many feel that Cornell’s broader policy of non-discrimination and openness includes transgendered people already.

“For the most part, as far as I’m aware, Cornell has always tried to be inclusive and accommodate the needs of transgendered people,” Dean said.

Little Attention

Although other institutions have passed resolutions banning discrimination against transgendered people, the issue has not received much public attention, according to Dean. She noted that the city of Chicago and the University of California system have banned such discrimination.

Totman said he feels the national attention has focused more on gays and lesbians than transgendered people.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit

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