Transgender law, others go into effect

CARSON CITY — Nevada’s estimated 25,000 to 50,000 transgender people finally become full-fledged citizens under state law today .

That’s when bills prohibiting discrimination against transgender men and women in the workplace, housing and public accommodations go into effect.

"It means I can feel I am part of the whole shebang," said Las Vegas marriage and family therapist Jane Heenan, a transgender activist. "I am included. I am OK. I don’t feel I am such a weirdo."

Nevada becomes the 15th state to extend the same legal protections to transgender people as it does to others on the basis of their race, creed, age, sex, religion, disability, national origin or sexual orientation.

The Nevada Equal Rights Commission will investigate complaints when transgender people think they are victims of discrimination. Laws prohibiting discrimination against gay people became law in 1999.

Transgender people are those who identify with or express behavior consistent with the gender that is opposite to the one given them at birth. Some have gone through sex change operations, and many have undergone hormone replacement treatments. The laws do not apply to those with a fetish for occasionally cross-dressing, but to people who live a full-time lifestyle in the sex opposite of their birth sex.

PSYCHOLOGICAL LIFT

Through the summer as word got out that Nevada has moving toward equality for transgender people, Heenan noticed a difference in the psychological well-being of her transgender clients.

"They were saying, ‘I can come out at work now. I have less fear in my life.’ It has been a struggle for them for a long time. But now their outlook on life is improving."

Silver State transgender people are celebrating the most momentous day in their history with a Equality Won! reception between 6 and 8 p.m. today at Equality Nevada Services Center, 708 S. Sixth St. in Las Vegas.

Special recognition will be given to Assemblyman Paul Aizley and state Sen. David Parks, both D-Las Vegas, sponsors of the bills, and to Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, one of the handful of Republicans who voted for all three bills.

The bills were approved by narrow legislative margins in the spring, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval did not hesitate to sign them.

Laws protecting transgender people are great, but Mel Goodwin of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Las Vegas, said a lot of work is ahead in informing businesses of their obligations. She feels there already is widespread public acceptance of transgender people and their right to equal protection of the law.

Goodwin said she and others made thousands of phone calls in the spring for passage of the three bills, and about 80 percent of respondents expressed support.

"People believe in fairness," Goodwin said. "They believe in treating others with fairness and dignity."

Heenan said that while support for transgender people is widespread, about 10 percent of the population always will consider transgender people "just terrible," and no amount of persuasion will change their views.

"Basically all we want is to live and let live," Heenan said.

She said the most important law is the one preventing employment discrimination. During hearings, transgender people testified their unemployment rate is twice the state rate, and even when they have impeccable education and work records, some employers refuse to hire them.

A TOURISM DRAW?

Goodwin and Heenan believe that through news reports, the Internet and word of mouth that transgender people across the country will learn of Nevada’s move toward equality and many will visit the state.

Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine said that her organization supported the bills and that many hotel-casinos strive for high Human Rights Campaign ratings because they want to publicize their willingness to serve all types of people.

"Already there is marketing to the gay and lesbian communities," Valentine said. "This gives them the freedom to market (to another group) in a manner they choose. Anything that attracts people to Las Vegas is good."

Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, which rates hotels and other businesses across the country, said the new laws show gays, lesbians and transgenders that Nevada welcomes them.

He said Americans’ ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman are evolving, noting it once was not acceptable for women to work outside the home.

Discrimination against transgender and "gender nonconforming" people is life-threatening, he added.

"It affects our physical and economic security by denying us opportunities in everything from basic health care to gainful employment. That’s why laws to protect transgender people are so important."

WHAT THE LAWS SAY

The new state law prohibiting employment discrimination against transgender people applies only to companies with 15 or more workers.

The law prohibiting people from renting or selling housing to transgender people does not apply to landlords with three or fewer homes or dwelling units under the Nevada Fair Housing Law.

Under the employment law, companies cannot discriminate based on one’s "gender expression or identity" but still can require a suitable dress standard.

During hearings, some legislators contended giving legal protection for transgender people would result in men going into women’s restrooms, or vice versa.

But during legislative hearings this year, activists such as Lauren Scott of Reno said that there no longer should be reason for critics to complain about what restrooms the transgenders use. A regulation approved last year by the state Department of Motor Vehicles allows transgender people with written authorization from doctors to change the gender mark on their drivers’ licenses. So if a security guard questions someone’s right to be in a particular restroom, the person needs only show his or her driver’s license.

A little-known section in the new public accommodations law also prohibits discrimination based on one’s gender but allows bars and other businesses to continue to offer ladies nights or discount pricing based on one’s gender.

The resort industry agreed this legislative session to back a prohibition against discrimination based on gender discrimination if an exemption was carved for special pricing promotions.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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