Signaling growing tolerance for transgendered people, the California senate agreed Thursday to ban housing and job discrimination against residents whose "perceived gender characteristics are different from those traditionally associated with the individual's sex at birth." The senate voted 23-11 to add "gender identity or expression" to the dozen characteristics already protected under the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act. If the governor signs the bill, California would become the fourth state to make it illegal to deny someone a job or place to live on that basis. Although the law would apply to all men and women whose appearances do not conform with masculine or feminine norms, its passage is widely viewed as a victory for transgendered people. "Having a law that specifically states who's protected makes it clear to employers that the majority of people in California want transgendered people to be able to work in a nondiscriminatory environment," said Chris Daley, codirector of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. A 1999 study by the San Francisco Department of Public Health reported that the city's transgender population had a 70% unemployment rate.
The state assembly approved the bill in April by a vote of 41 to 34, the minimum needed to pass. Sponsored by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the legislation still allows employers to require their workers to follow "reasonable workplace appearance and standards" as long as those rules don't prevent employees from dressing "consistently with their gender identity." Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a transgendered person, said that even though the courts in California have already extended legal protection from discrimination based on sex to transgendered residents, Leno's bill helped plug an important loophole. "Most employers and landlords don't know transgendered people are protected under state law," Minter said. "Even worse, most transgendered people don't know they are protected, so it's important to clarify that."
Leno's legislation was part of a package of bills promoted this year by the California legislature's five-member Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus. A bill that would grant domestic partners most of the same rights and protections as married couples was approved by the assembly in June and is expected to be taken up the senate next month. Some are arguing that the future of the pro-gay bills has been made uncertain by the current gubernatorial recall election in the state. "If anything, the recall effort should make it clearer to [Gov. Gray Davis] that he needs to continue to support equality as the vast majority of Californians do," argued Jeffrey Kors, executive director for Equality California, a statewide lobbying group.