Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Welcoming Town ...

By KEILA SZPALLER of The Missoulian:

When Douglas finally worked up the moxie to tell his boss he was changing his female body to match his male identity, he figured he'd be out of a job.

"I sort of got the gumption up and was terrified. Absolutely terrified," said Douglas, a Missoula engine mechanic. "I had this job. I expected the worst. I expected at the very worst to be punched in the face and at the least to be fired."

Douglas, 30, still in his probationary period, blurted out the message with zero finesse. The transition, the name change, everything. His boss stared.

"Slower this time," Douglas said. "I'm going to transition. I'm going to take hormones. I'm going to present as male. I feel like a guy. If you have a problem with that, you have to fire me right now. Because this is what I'm going to do."

He said his boss stared some more. Then, the man asked Douglas if he was happy. Douglas said he was. And that settled it for the local business.

"He said, ‘That's all I need to know,' " Douglas said.

That was four years ago, and Douglas said he is lucky to work for such an employer and such a company. But he said many other people who identify as "trans" encounter just the opposite. Employers rescind job offers. Workers fear applying.

And while Douglas considers himself fortunate in his job, he also isn't sharing more than his middle name for this story because he fears retribution for being transgender.

That's one kind of discrimination the Montana Human Rights Network wants to curb with a municipal non-discrimination ordinance advocates believe is a first for a city in Montana. Network organizer Jamee Greer said supporters are collecting signatures and he expects a proposal to come this spring to the Missoula City Council.

"Missoula is a welcoming town," Greer said. "This is a way for us to come together and brand the city and say we don't stand for this kind of intolerance."


The ordinance is being drafted. In brief, its aim is to protect people from sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

"Right now, if you're discriminated (against) based on your race or religion, the Montana Human Rights Act will offer you legal recourse," Greer said.

It won't if you're discriminated against based on gender identity. The Network, a human rights advocacy and organizing group, has tried unsuccessfully for 20 years to pass such a ban statewide. Now it's taking the plan to cities.

City Council members Stacy Rye and Dave Strohmaier plan to offer up the law in Missoula. Rye said she expects the matter will come to a council committee sometime in March. In the meantime, other organizations are rallying support. The ACLU of Montana, Forward Montana and Montana Equality Now all are working on the effort.

Montana Equality Now co-chair and co-founder John Blake said the political action and education group collected the first 400 signatures on the petition, all on the University of Montana campus. Blake also said the citywide ordinances are true needs and not just olive branches.

"A lot of people are very surprised when we say things like we can get rejected at a hotel room based on perceived sexual orientation," Blake said. "We can get fired from a job based on perceived sexual orientation."

Missoula has a reputation for being a relatively tolerant community, though. Even during a low point in 2002 when a lesbian couple was burned out of their home, Greer said the overwhelming response in support of them seemed to balance out some of the fear that arose. But there's still work to do.

"The great thing is we're not getting a lot of discrimination from LGB," Greer said of people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. "We are getting a lot of discrimination from trans folks."


That's people like Douglas, who said his story is one of success but it's unusual. He declined to name his employer for this story. He said such an ordinance in Missoula would be a stepping stone to more protections for trans people.

"I can guarantee you a majority of employers wouldn't touch that person with a 10-foot pole," Douglas said. "Not because they are personally discriminating against transgendered people, but maybe they're worried (about) how their clients might."

Many times, the matter arises after an employer offers a job to someone who looks, say, male. At that point, the job candidate has to present a driver's license, and it says the candidate is female. The offer vanishes.

The discrimination against transgendered people isn't surprising, said Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. The HRC is a national organization working on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.

"There's still a lot of fear," Warbelow said. "People are unsure of what to expect."

She said "transgender" is an umbrella term that includes people transitioning from female to male or male to female, but it also includes people who identify as gender queer. That's people who aren't transitioning but identify in a non-gendered way.

While Missoula appears to be at the forefront of such legal protections in Montana, Warbelow said cities have been adopting these ordinances since around the 1980s. The more cities and counties that adopt such policies, the more pressures it puts on states to do the same. That pushes at the national level.

Cities are a good place to start. At home in their communities, she said people see the laws don't have negative consequences.

"The world doesn't come crashing down because you protect people on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation," Warbelow said.

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