Eugene, Ore., revives efforts to accommodate transgendered people

The University of Oregon has already set aside several unisex bathrooms to accommodate transgendered students, including those who cross-dress, have had a sex change, or say they identify with the opposite gender. The city's Human Rights Commission runs educational seminars for city employees about the needs of such individuals. City staff and community activists are now reviving an effort to expand Eugene's antidiscrimination laws to include protections for transgendered people.

Supporters say they are encouraged by the growing number of public bodies such as the university that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and by the increased visibility and activism of local transgendered people. They're also hopeful that, come next year, a new mayor and city council will be more open to the idea of extending such protections.

But more than that, "we really want to do what we promised we would do, and that is to provide a lot more education," said Karen Hyatt with the city's human rights program. "We didn't realize it was needed, and we found out last time that it was." That education so far has included diversity training for city employees and contacts with such groups as the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, City Club of
Eugene, and Temple Beth Israel. The city also plans to host a community meeting on transgender issues on October 18.

The issue surfaced two years ago when Mayor Jim Torrey threatened to veto a package of revisions to the city's human rights code if it included a guarantee of "reasonable accommodations" for transgendered people in buildings open to the public. The mayor cited concerns about privacy and the potential cost of making accommodations to restrooms, locker rooms, and showers. He also said he received a flood of mail from concerned residents about men dressed as women using women's bathrooms.

The council ultimately dropped the language relating to transgender rights but approved the rest of the package, including a domestic registry for same-sex and other unmarried couples. The number of instances of alleged discrimination relating to gender identity is difficult to gauge. Over the past four years the city has received three informal complaints. Two came from people arrested and put in jail with fellow inmates of the wrong gender. That problem has been addressed by establishing a separate room for prisoners who identify themselves as transgendered, Hyatt said. The third complaint involved an allegation of public harassment, she said. "We also know that people are really nervous about coming forward about these issues," she said.

Based on national projections, the city estimates that at least 100 transgendered people reside in Eugene. So far, little opposition has surfaced to the renewed campaign for legal protection. One ardent critic from two years ago, Bill Northrup, said he doesn't yet have enough information about the city's latest proposal to make a judgment.

As the father of twins, Northrup said he appreciates that unisex bathrooms can be used by families with young children--as well as senior citizens, people with disabilities and transgendered people. Northrup said he could abide efforts to increase the number of such facilities, "so long as no one is asking me to
change my beliefs or theology."

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