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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014

Strong passions underlie Pinellas fight over transgender rights


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ST. PETERSBURG — There are no items of men’s clothing left in Alex Wilson’s closet.

The 25-year-old began her journey from being a man to a woman four years ago, growing out her blond hair and dressing in skirts and women’s tops. A twice-daily regimen of female hormone pills caused her breasts to develop, a step toward making her body match the way she always imagined herself.

Living full-time as a woman included using women’s restrooms. She can no longer use a urinal anyway, because the hormones have shrunken her genitalia.

This summer, though, officials at Pinellas Technical Education Center told the nursing student they would take legal action against her if she continued using the women’s restroom, Wilson said. Instead, she said she was told to use a bathroom in a storage area, which did not lock from the inside and was a 10-minute walk from her classroom.

“It honestly felt as if I was being segregated,” she said. “I feel like there is a giant target on my head, like I’m not wanted there; it’s disheartening.”

The ACLU has stepped in on Wilson’s behalf, warning Pinellas County Schools in an Aug. 22 letter that the school district is sexually discriminating against Wilson.

Wilson’s case is another example of how society has struggled to accommodate transgender people, whose push for legal rights and protections has become another front in the so-called culture wars pitting progressives against social conservatives on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and the teaching of evolution.

The same week the ACLU sent its letter, Pinellas County commissioners voted to give transgender people legal protection from discrimination, despite an outpouring of protest from residents. Local church leaders urged their members to attend the meeting, which filled the commission chamber and two overflow rooms.

They complained the measure would give transgender people preferential treatment, move the country further away from Christianity and allow men in dresses to use women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.

About 30 protestors at the meeting came from the Abundant Life Ministries in Largo at the request of Pastor Anthony McDaniel.

Along with his wife, Kendra McDaniel, he has pastored the church since 1995. She attended the East Coast Bible College, and they are both preachers’ kids. The couple has three daughters, and McDaniel said he could not stand by if he saw a transgender woman follow his daughter into a bathroom.

“You’ve got there a guy who was born a guy with the genitalia of a guy, and now he wants to be seen as a woman, and he goes in the bathroom with my daughter,” he said. “I’m not comfortable with that.”

McDaniel said he supports transgender people’s rights to live their lives how they wish but disagrees with granting them special legal protections. He said it’s unfair that opponents of Pinellas County’s ordinance have been vilified.

“If you disagree on that or gay marriage, you’re considered close-minded or bigoted, and that’s not really fair,” he said.

Transgender advocates say the county ordinance is needed and that transgender people are more likely to be unemployed and homeless because of discrimination. While the gay rights movement has achieved major milestones recently, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s nullification of the Defense of Marriage Act, rights for transgender people still lag far behind, they say. There are no federal or state laws that specifically prohibit gender-identity discrimination.

And in a society where the differences between men and women are still deeply ingrained, it may be years before there is widespread acceptance of transgender people, said Orit Avishai, a sociology professor at Fordham University.

“People have in their minds that gender, sex and sexuality line up,” Avishai said. “The idea of transgender really blows up that system. They don’t know which box they fit into; they don’t know what bathroom they fit into.”

Transgender rights a growing issue

There may be as many as 3,500 transgender people living in the Tampa Bay area, said Michael Keeffe, executive director of Trans Action Florida, a transgender advocacy group.

The definition includes people who have undergone gender reassignment surgery but also those who are transitioning through hormone treatments and those who live full-time as the opposite sex.

Keeffe, who was born female, said the county’s ordinance will give transgender people a better chance of fighting discrimination through the Equal Opportunities Commission. It’s a protection that is sorely needed, he said.

The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that in Florida, 81 percent of transgender people reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment at work.

Roughly 16 percent of respondents reported becoming homeless because they had changed genders.

“We get complaints of discrimination frequently,” he said. “People don’t want to take it further because of the humiliation and the pain.”

Before he switched to using men’s restrooms, Keeffe said he was often chased out of women’s bathrooms because of his masculine appearance. Now, sporting a beard and moustache, he has no problem passing as a guy.

That is more difficult for male-to-female transgender people, whose masculine facial structures and body sizes are very different from typical feminine features. They are more likely to be the victims of violent attacks than transgender men, Keeffe said.

Andrew Citino, who was born female and lives as a man, runs the 6S Boutique on Central Avenue, which caters to transgender people, cross-dressers, drag queens and stage performers.

Lacy corsets and feather boas hang on the walls. Wigs, nail varnish, false eyelashes and costume jewelry cover the shelves. The store is as much a support center as a business, where customers often share stories of discrimination. Citino has his own stories, including an interview at Job Corps in Sarasota, where a staffer quoted Bible passages to him after learning Citino was transgender.

Most discrimination occurs because people don’t understand the transgender lifestyle, Citino said. Roughly 35 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at some point. Those who come out are often isolated from their families. There is also self-loathing because people’s bodies do not match the way they see themselves.

“The most important thing for people to understand is this is not a choice,” Citino said.

Laws should follow biology, conservatives say

Those who opposed extending legal protection to transgender people disagree,

A frequent complaint at last month’s County Commission meeting was that, unlike protections based on race, disability and sex, the ordinance grants protected status to people based solely on their emotions. Conservatives characterize the measure as political correctness gone too far.

“I believe regulation prohibiting discrimination based on sex is a good idea,” said Clearwater resident Bronson Oudshoft. “It’s not based on what you wear or how you feel, but it’s based on genetic makeup.”

Some said the ordinance would make employers fearful to fire transgender people, no matter how they looked.

Wendy Tai, who drove from Tampa to Clearwater to protest the ordinance, became a born-again Christain as a teenager.

She said her opposition to the transgender campaign for legal protection comes from her personal relationship with God.

“I know where it stands with him,” she said. “There will not be a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell in heaven,” she said. “Let them have their Middle Earth and have their gay marriage because they’re not going to heaven.”

Tai said she has met transgender people. A girlfriend she had lost touch with underwent a sex change operation to become a man, As a man, her friend tried to reestablish their friendship, but it didn’t work out.

“I still see him as a her because I know ‘him’ has a ‘her’ brain,” she said.

“God created a person a certain way and that’s who they are,”

Uncertain future

Wilson, the nursing student, is still hoping that PTEC officials will change their minds about her using the women’s restroom, which she had been using since she enrolled in November.

After her story was first reported in the media in the summer, she was told she could use a male faculty restroom, but that meant asking for the key in front of her classmates. Recently, she was offered the use of another restroom close to the one in the storage area.

Ironically, Pinellas County Schools, which runs PTEC, is exempted from the new county ordinance.

Melanie Marquez Parra said that school district attorneys are reviewing the letter from the ACLU and that it’s general practice in the district for transgender students to be offered a separate restroom facility.

The district’s antidiscrimination policy, spelled out on its website, prohibits discrimination and harassment based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, age, sexual orientation or disability. It does not include gender identity.

Since living full-time as a woman, Wilson said she has been fired from jobs. She also left one job after her tires were slashed and her boss refused to take any action.

“Even when I get the ability to use that women’s restroom, I’m never going to be looked at the same way,” she said. “I’m not asking for anything great from the school, just to have the same privileges as every other human being,”

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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