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The Nose

Gender Bent

Posted 12/4/2002

The good news the Nose has to report this week is that on Nov. 25, the city of Baltimore became the 53rd jurisdiction nationwide (and the 14th this year) to pass a law making it illegal to discriminate against individuals based on "gender identity or expression." The bill, which passed unanimously before the City Council, amends the city's anti-discrimination laws to protect transgender individuals from prejudice in employment, education, public accommodations, housing, or health and welfare. Until Nov. 25, the law only protected people from discrimination based on age, national origin, mental or physical disability, sex, race, sexual orientation, or marital status.

The measure was backed by Free State Justice, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. According to Jean-Michel Brevelle, interim director of Free State Justice, the bill (which he says was coincidentally introduced just after the city's Transgender Day of Remembrance celebration) was conceived when the Mayor's Task Force on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Issues met earlier this year. "They had a discussion about the lack of protections for transgender persons in Baltimore City, and they voted to support any effort to address that," Brevelle says. "The mayor said that, yes, he would be very happy to support a bill like that because, yes, there are problems with discrimination."

Interestingly, Brevelle says, there was absolutely no opposition to the bill during the hearing process: "No one showed up to say, 'We don't like it, we have concerns,' " he says. "Having done LGBT civil-rights initiatives before, we're always surprised when we don't see that kind of opposition."

For example, Brevelle says, the state of Maryland considered passing a similar bill that would have outlawed transgender discrimination statewide, but the bill was killed "when the folks in the State House decided not to support it."

The Nose was tickled to hear that Baltimore's City Council--and nonprotesting electorate--was so enlightened and progressive as to support this transgender-protection measure.

Which brings us to the not-as-good news. It seems that the city's biggest print-media outlet is still a little behind the curve when it comes to being progressive and informed on matters of interest to the LGBT community. In reporting on the council's passage of the bill, The Sun's headline read that the council had passed a measure outlawing bias against "transsexuals." Throughout the story, the term transsexual was used repeatedly, while the word transgender did not appear in the story once. Which is too bad, considering the fact that until recently transsexual (which, according to the Random House Webster's Dictionary, is "one who strongly desires to assume the physical characteristics and gender role of the opposite sex . . . [or] a person who has undergone surgical and hormonal treatment for this purpose") was used by the psychiatric community to define a psychological disorder.

The Nose received a call the day The Sun article appeared, pointing out that the term transgender is a much more accurate--and acceptable--term to use when describing persons whose appearance and behavior does not meet conventional gender standards. The caller--who happens to be an employee for a LGBT advocacy group--pointed out that transgender is a broader term that covers transsexuals, cross dressers, and intersex individuals--not to mention the fact that it holds none of the implications of pathology that are often associated with the word transsexual.

But when questioned about the Sun's use of the word, assistant managing editor for the copy desk John McIntyre said that there is no settled preference for usage of the word. "We do not have an established style on that," he says. "And as far as I've been able to determine, while individuals and organizations may have preferences for one term over the other, there's not a settled preference in usage yet. For example, if you do a Google search, you'll discover that the terms transgender and transsexual are used interchangeably, even at advocacy sites."

The Nose did its own Google search and found that the word transsexual and transgender are used by many advocacy groups--but to describe two distinct groups of individuals. If the city council did indeed pass a law that would specifically protect transsexuals, for instance, the bill would not apply to cross dressers. Or people who simply happen to look or act too masculine or feminine. Or people who were born with indiscriminate sex organs. While this may seem like splitting hairs, the Nose thinks it's an important distinction to make, especially to the transgender individual looking for protection under the law.

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