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Gender warriors

Tide rising for transgender people in politics, pop culture and the workplace

  • Isis King was a contestant on "America's Next Top Model."
Isis King was a contestant on "America's Next Top Model."
July 09, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, RedEye

The "T" in LGBT is at its tipping point.

In their own fight for equal rights, transgender people are now more than ever confronting issues head-on in politics, pop culture and the workplace.

"The United States is starting to really come around," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, which was founded in 2003. "In Chicago, you have a city government that's pretty good and state government that's pretty good and a president from Illinois who is committed to advancing equal rights for trans people."

Only within the past few years, really, have there been major successes in raising awareness and changing policies that face the trans community. But now the tide seems to be rising when it comes to equality and attention. For example, only 4 percent of Americans in 2001 lived in jurisdictions that had gender identity non-discrimination laws, Keisling said, and now that number is up to 44 percent. Meanwhile, transgender people have been featured in film and TV shows including "Boys Don't Cry" (1999),"America's Next Top Model"(2008) and"Glee"(2012).

This year also saw the first transgender Miss Universe contestant and American Apparel ads featuring a transgender model. Locally, the Be-All transgender conference was held last month in Downers Grove, and a trans rally is planned for this month in Union Park.

"We are making some great strides. Otherwise there wouldn't be all this attention on us," said Olivia Connors, chairwoman of the Be-All Conference, which has grown from six to more than 350 attendees in 30 years.

Amanda Simpson, the first openly transgender presidential appointee, was this year's conference keynote speaker, a year after an appearance by Chaz Bono, who competed on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2011.

The attention is welcome. "The more awareness there is, the more understanding of who we are, what we're doing, how we live [there is]," said Jacquiline Anne Perry, former president of the Chicago Gender Society, which provides outreach to the transgender and transsexual community.

While there have been successful court battles and policy changes, federal and local leaders are taking a closer look at several issues facing the transgender community. Here's a rundown of the latest developments.

Hate crimes

A federal law passed in 2009 covers hate crimes motivated by gender identity. Illinois lawmakers are considering a similar measure, which would elevate certain crimes to felonies, but it has been stuck in committee since March.

The city announced in March that one goal of its LGBT Community Action Plan is to improve the tracking of hate crimes against transgender people.

Members of the LGBT community are more likely to be victims of hate crime than any other minority group, according to civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center. Transgender people—particularly women and those of color—are at a greater risk for hate violence, which ranges from discrimination to physical violence, a 2011 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs said.

Police interaction

Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno(1st) proposed an ordinance in March to have the Chicago Police Department report its new policy for the treatment of transgender people. Even though the police department has been working on the issue for a couple of years, Moreno put forth an ordinance to jumpstart the discussion, which he hopes will move forward for approval this summer.

The proposal calls for a policy that would require officers to use pronouns that are consistent with the person's gender identity, prohibit body searches to determine gender and mandate equal treatment in response to complaints and requests for medical attention from detainees.

"It's a human rights issue, but it also protects the city," Moreno said. For example, a transgender teen this year sued the town of Cicero and two police officers for harassing her.

June LaTrobe, volunteer coordinator of transgender and gender variant programs at the Center on Halsted, would like the ordinance to include training, oversight and reporting of any police interactions with transgender people.

"We've had problems, particularly for young transgender women of color, who have been stopped on the street, who have been harassed, who have been physically assaulted by police officers," she said. "I don't want to paint the entire 10,000 or how many police officers we have with that brush, but it still happens."

ID changes

When individuals transition from one gender to another, getting new identification documents such as drivers licenses and birth certificates can be a challenge.

In a survey about trans issues that was released last year, only 21 percent of respondents said they updated all their IDs and records after their transition.

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