City Council votes to protect gender identity under discrimination policy

Monday, December 5, 2011 | 10:03 p.m. CST; updated 10:31 p.m. CST, Monday, December 5, 2011

COLUMBIA — When Jessica Orsini walked out of the Columbia City Council meeting Monday night, she dropped to her knees and pumped her fists.  

"Yes," she said, standing up and hugging the nearest person. "I've been waiting for this for 11 years."

Orsini, a Centralia alderwoman, was celebrating the unanimous approval by the council to include gender identity as a protected category against discrimination in the city code. She has been active in the push to bring such protections to Columbia for nearly a decade.

Orsini is transsexual — she knew from the time she was 3 years old that she was a female. "Ever since I was able to tell the difference," she said.

In 1998, she underwent surgery to become a woman. Although the surgery allowed her to feel at home in her body, she faced discrimination in applying for jobs and housing. 

Employers, after interviewing her, would find her records and see the name change, then drop her from the pool of potential applicants, she said. One landlord who found out about her gender identity told her, "'We don't want none of that here, we got kids here,'" she said.

The amendment makes this kind of discrimination in Columbia illegal by requiring equal protection in housing, employment and public accommodations for transgender people. It defines gender identity as "the identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics" of a person without regard to their "designation at birth."

According to a previous Missourian article, Columbia has prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1992. When the Human Rights Commission recommended similar protections for gender identity in 2002, the council took no action because of opposition from local employers, City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said. 

Many members of the council were surprised by the city's reluctance to include gender identity in the discrimination policy. 

"I'm sorry it's taken nine years. It's way overdue," Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony said. "I'm going to be happy to support it."

The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that up to 1 percent of the population is transgender. 

PROMO, an organization that works throughout the state to promote equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, has worked with officials and organizations in Columbia for years to create greater protections based on gender identity. 

"This has been a target we've really been focusing on," Claire Cook, the Kansas City and mid-Missouri regional field organizer for PROMO, said before the meeting.

With the new policy, Columbia will join St. Louis and Kansas City in providing full protections for transgender people. 

Orsini hopes the council's action will have a wide impact in the county. 

"Now that it's here in Columbia, maybe we can take steps in Centralia," she said. "Maybe."

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