Columbia council to consider including gender identity in discrimination policy

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | 6:35 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — An amendment to the human rights ordinance of the Columbia city code would add gender identity as a category protected from discrimination.

The amended ordinance would define gender identity as the "identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics," of a person without regard for to their "designation at birth."

This would protect transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said.

The council will hold a hearing on the issue before voting on the new wording at the next council meeting Dec. 5. Changes to the ordinance were drafted by the city's Law Department at the request of Mayor Bob McDavid.

PROMO, a statewide organization that promotes equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, has worked with organizations and officials in Columbia for years to increase equality. 

Claire Cook, the Kansas City and mid-Missouri regional field organizer for PROMO, said passage of the new ordinance would end the common practice of discrimination against transgender people.

A report by the National Center for Transgender Equality states 47 percent of transgender people surveyed had lost or been denied a job due to their gender identity. Nineteen percent had been refused a home and 53 percent had experienced verbal harassment or disrespect in a place of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants.

"It's more common than one might think," Cook said. 

The issue of discrimination based on gender identity came up in Columbia a decade ago. No action was taken then due to the concerns of local employers, Boeckmann said. 

Columbia has, however, prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1992. This gap between the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity is due to the focus of the movement, Cook said. 

"Sexual orientation was the main focus at that time," she said. "Now there is a really strong focus on both."

Missouri has been slow to approve changes to nondiscrimination laws. Last year, Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order prohibiting discriminatory treatment based on sexual orientation; it applies only to state employees of the executive branch. The order does not include protection based on gender identity.

Kansas City and St. Louis have amended their ordinances to include protection of transgender people. Jackson County offers employment protections, and a few cities in St. Louis County have different protections, Cook said. 

"Missouri is much more of a conservative state," she said, making passage of nondiscrimination based on gender identity difficult. People in small cities often oppose such changes, she said. 

"It comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the LGBT community and the discrimination we face," she said. 

Based on the support she has received from Columbia residents, she thinks the amendment to the human rights ordinance will pass easily through the council, she said. 

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