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National Perspective | Culture

In Minnesota, a New Battle of the Sexes

State is only one to protect transgender residents from discrimination. Some conservatives want that to change.

April 08, 1999|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINNEAPOLIS — It's illegal in Minnesota to fire a worker because of his race. Sandy Crosby has no problem with that. Nor can someone be axed because he is gay. Crosby is OK with that too.

But Minnesota is also the only state in the nation to protect transgender residents against discrimination. Employers cannot fire people for presenting an "identity not traditionally associated with [their] biological maleness or femaleness."

And Crosby has a big, big problem with that.

When her suburban school district hired a transgender music teacher for her daughters' middle school, Crosby was outraged. She did not want her girls to consider a man in pantyhose a role model. She did not want them sharing a restroom with a man who believes he's a woman. Above all, she did not want the state of Minnesota protecting a teacher whose lifestyle she considers morally wrong.

"We don't think school is the place to shove this in our kids' faces," Crosby said.

"We'll fight it," she vowed. "I mean it. We will."

Attempt to Remove Clause

In a showdown that promises to spark much debate, Crosby and several like-minded parents have teamed up with conservative advocacy groups to try to excise the transgender clause from Minnesota's 1993 Human Rights Act.

They've already won one victory. The transgender music teacher, Alyssa Williams, resigned in late February, complaining that her foes had "worked tirelessly to get rid of me." Williams, who has since refused all interviews, added in a statement: "They do not want to accept that I exist."

Many parents did support Williams, championing her as a real-life example of the need to respect diversity. After she disclosed she was biologically male, although she had legally changed her identity to female, only 25 of the more than 400 students she taught withdrew from her classes. Another transgender educator, a Minneapolis librarian, also won the backing of many parents after "coming out" as a woman last spring.

"This is Minnesota," gay-rights activist Bart J. Cannon said. "We have a tradition of respect."

The campaign to revise the Human Rights Act will put that tradition to the test.

Gov. Jesse Ventura already has promised to support the law as is. "He is unabashedly in support of human rights for everyone," spokesman John Wodele said.

Still, transgender activists fear they're vulnerable. As Riki Anne Wilchins, director of a national advocacy group called Gender PAC, put it: "In polite company, you no longer make jokes about gays and lesbians. But gender difference is still a socially acceptable reason to hate."

The transgender community includes everyone who feels as though their true identity does not match their biological sex. It embraces cross-dressers and those who blend male and female traits for an androgynous image, as well as people who live full-time as the opposite sex. Some, but not all, have surgery or take hormones to aid the transition.

A handful of cities--including San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Seattle and Iowa City--have enacted laws protecting transgender people from discrimination. Only Minnesota, however, offers statewide protection. The Human Rights Act holds that no one be denied employment, housing or public accommodation (such as service in a restaurant or tickets to a ballgame) because of gender identity. Religious associations and private youth groups are exempt.

"Since the law has been in effect," said Walter Bockting, who directs the program in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota, "it has really given transgender people more confidence to come out of the closet and express their true identities."

It certainly gave a boost to librarian David Nielsen.

One Educator Finds Support

Nielsen had worked in Minneapolis public schools for 28 years before the Human Rights Act--as well as his own growing self-confidence--helped him find the courage to announce he was living a lie. Although biologically a man, he had long felt his true identity was female. For years, he had been transforming himself into Debra Davis after work. Now, he wanted to be Debra on the job as well.

The school staff, well briefed on the law, supported him. So Debra Davis debuted at Southwest High School last May, with television cameras whirring.

Davis, 52, may well be the only publicly "out" transgender educator in the country who works directly with secondary school students, activists say. She is also Exhibit A for those pushing to revise the Human Rights Act.

"By sending a message that it's just another acceptable lifestyle, you get kids thinking, 'Maybe that's where I want to go.' " said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. "For many people, that's morally objectionable."

Davis scoffs at such reasoning. "It's not like it's catching," she said. "I don't recruit."

She does allow, however, that she's on a crusade of her own. "I want to change the world. I want to make it a safe, loving place, accepting of diversity, for my grandchildren."

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