Philadelphia in vanguard of transgender tolerance

Posted: May 30, 2012

When the possibility of prohibiting discrimination against transgender people comes up, opponents often raise concerns about bathroom usage, of all things: "What about the men’s and ladies’ rooms?" It seems like a frivolous basis for denying an entire group of citizens their civil rights, but all too often, that’s the tenor of discussions about legal protections for transgender individuals. It places little stock in our ability to assimilate, sympathize with, and simply deal with people whose experience of the world does not match our own.

Fortunately, the experience in Philadelphia has been different. Ten years ago today, Mayor John F. Street signed into law a bill expanding the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. Passed by a wide margin in City Council, the protections apply to public accommodations, housing, and employment, and they are enforced by the city’s Human Relations Commission.

At the time, there were only two states, eight counties, and 34 cities in the United States with laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. Then-Councilmen Michael Nutter and Frank DiCicco, who were driving forces in the effort, and their fellow Council members deserve credit for doing the right thing. Rather than reject something unfamiliar to them, they took the time to educate themselves on it, recognizing that their role as public servants obliged them to serve all Philadelphians, not just those who look, think, and act as they do.

That the bill was passed with so little resistance is a testament not only to the fair-mindedness of the city’s leaders, but also the dedication of the community activists who were involved in bringing about the change. They recognized early on that one key to getting the legislation passed would be educating members of City Council on the meaning of gender identity and the importance of expanding legal protections to thousands of people who live and work in Philadelphia. Many brave people testified before Council about their own experiences, explaining the impact the legislation would have on them on a daily basis.

Logical extension

If you have never faced this kind of discrimination, it is difficult to imagine how frustrating and even frightening it can be to struggle with an insurance company over a medical treatment deemed unnecessary or inappropriate, or to hold your breath each time you step onto a city bus and hand over your transit pass, gender sticker affixed, for inspection.

Then and now, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities have been fortunate to have important allies in Philadelphia — people who understand that cities derive great strength from their diversity, and that extending civil protections to everyone in society is a logical extension of the foundations laid by revolutionary thinkers in this city more than two centuries ago.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the antidiscrimination legislation, we’re also about to convene the 11th annual Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, a Mazzoni Center program scheduled to start Thursday and continue through Saturday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. What began in 2002 as a one-day gathering of transgender activists, allies, and service providers has grown to become the largest transgender-specific conference in the world, offering three full days of workshops and activities. Last year, the conference drew a diverse group of more than 2,000 from around the nation and the world to talk about health, safety, education, employment, housing, and social support.

Much progress

Today, we’ve come a long way. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia and a total of 143 cities and counties have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.

Of course, a great deal of work remains to be done to combat prejudice and discrimination. Transgender individuals continue to experience alarmingly high rates of violence and disproportionate levels of unemployment, in addition to institutional health-care and legal barriers.

We have to continue educating medical professionals, legal practitioners, and people in general about the transgender community and the diverse range of experiences represented within it. As with the gay and lesbian liberation movements of earlier years, progress will come as more of us get to know one another on a personal level and learn to recognize our shared dignity and humanity.

We at Mazzoni Center have always believed that people’s civil and legal rights are an integral part of their health and well-being. We salute those whose determination and commitment to justice worked to make Philadelphia a better place for all its citizens a decade ago, and we encourage those who continue that work this week and beyond.

Nurit L. Shein is the executive director of Mazzoni Center, a Center City-based nonprofit health-care and wellness organization focused on the area’s LGBT communities. For more information about the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, see www.trans-health.org.

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