City to consider ‘gender identity’ as protected class

Lawrence city commissioners now are ready to begin a debate about whether transsexuals and others who don’t identify with the gender of their birth deserve new protections from discrimination.

Commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are scheduled to consider adding “gender identity” as a protected class that can’t be discriminated against in matters of employment, housing and public accommodations.

“Part of what we’re trying to do here is send a message of tolerance,” said Mayor Aron Cromwell, who is supporting the ordinance. “Lawrence is a tolerant community, and here’s an example.”

But expect a debate at City Hall about whether adding legal protections for transsexuals, transvestites, cross-dressers and others who consider themselves to be transgendered is an act of tolerance or an overreaching regulation by government.

James Dunn, a local landlord who also is a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission, said he has not seen strong evidence that transgendered individuals are being discriminated against in the city.

“I heard people struggling with their own internal self, but I didn’t hear discrimination,” Dunn said. “I just did not see anything that rose to the level that required us to put in a whole new ordinance, especially given the amount of education it would require and the confusion it may create.”

The issue of a new law has been brewing in Lawrence for more than two years. But thus far it has met resistance. The city’s Human Relations Commission, which deals with matters of discrimination in the city, voted in May of 2009 that the city should not create a new ordinance. The Human Relations Commission’s vote, though, is just an advisory one, and city commissioners were left with the final decision.

City commissioners, however, never took the issue up. Cromwell on Wednesday conceded that was because commissioners did not want the topic to become a major issue in City Commission campaigns, which began in early 2010.

“It would have been a very poor topic to have right in front of an election,” Cromwell said. “In general, these sort of single-issue type of elections aren’t good for a town.”

But Cromwell said now is the time to have the discussion. Lawrence would be the only community in the state to have a local anti-discrimination law addressing gender identity. Manhattan briefly passed a law, but it was repealed earlier this year when a new slate of city commissioners took office. Other regional communities — Kansas City, Mo. and Boulder, Colo. are among the nearest — do have gender identity laws, in addition to multiple communities across the country.

Cromwell said the law is needed because currently an employer or a landlord can take action against a person simply because they identify their gender in a way that is contrary to how they were born.

“This is really more of a right to work issue for these people,” Cromwell said. “They just want to have the right to work and live in town like everybody else. As it stands right now, if you choose not to rent to someone, you can say ‘I don’t like the fact you’re transgendered so I’m not going to rent to you.'”

The new law would make it illegal to discriminate in matters of employment, housing, and public accommodations, which includes allowing people to be served at restaurants, hotels and other businesses open to the public.

Cromwell expects significant opposition to the proposal. In April, about 50 people attended a meeting to express concerns about the gender identity proposal. Representatives from the Alliance Defense Fund, Concerned Women for America, and the Kansas Family Policy Council attended the meeting. Attempts on Wednesday to reach a local organizer of that meeting were unsuccessful. But Cromwell said he had received multiple emails from individuals who objected to the proposal on religious and moral grounds.

Scott Criqui, chair of the city’s Human Relations Commission and a supporter of the proposal, said he expects transgendered people who have suffered from discrimination to make their voices heard too.

“Discrimination toward the transgendered community happens frequently, but most people are smart enough that they don’t say you can’t work here because you’re transgendered,” Criqui said. “But hopefully this ordinance would give people some leverage to say ‘I think the real reason you are firing me is this.'”

City commissioners haven’t yet released a draft of any proposed ordinance. A draft is expected to be released by Thursday afternoon. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.