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Friday, December 02, 2005

Anti-bias bill would protect sex changers

New Jersey's anti-discrimination law, already one of the toughest in the nation, would protect cross-dressers and people who change their sex if a bill that appears headed for victory in the Assembly becomes law.

The proposal, which has bipartisan support, would add "gender identity or expression" to the classes safeguarded from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation.

If the bill passes, New Jersey would become the seventh state to protect transgender people, joining Maine, Rhode Island, California, New Mexico, Illinois and Minnesota.

"A couple years ago, I would have thought, 'Oh, my God, what legislator is going to touch this with a 10-foot pole?'Ÿ" said Steven Goldstein, a leading lobbyist for gay and transgender rights in New Jersey. "But this has been a total cakewalk. It's the easiest thing we ever worked on - a basic anti-discrimination bill. Legislators from both parties have been extremely open to it."

The bill, which could go before the Assembly Judiciary Committee as early as next Thursday, already has a long line of Democratic co-sponsors and one from the other side of the aisle, too: Joe Azzolina, an old-line Monmouth County Republican who previously sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and opposed domestic-partnership rights for gays. Azzolina said this effort is different.

"I'm in the supermarket business, and I don't believe in discrimination based on gender, religion, race, creed or sexual orientation," said Azzolina. "We have gays and lesbians working for us and all we ask is that they don't flaunt it. A doctor once told me they can't help what they are - they're born that way - so you can't hurt them or blame them for that."

Goldstein said he counts 50 supporters out of the 80 Assembly members. A date has not been set for the bill to go before the Senate, but its sponsors are optimistic, too.

"A vote in favor of this bill isn't condoning anyone's choice to switch from male to female," said the Senate's deputy majority leader, Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge, a primary sponsor. "It's just recognizing that everyone should be treated equally under the law."

Not everybody agrees.

"Why do we need this?" said Len Deo, head of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, a conservative lobbying group. "I don't think a person with a mental disorder should be protected against discrimination. It puts a real burden on the public welfare."

The bill would codify a four-year-old ruling by the state Appellate Division. The court found that an employer violated state law by firing its medical director when she became a male. State law, the court said, bans discrimination against people who don't fit stereotypical notions of gender and, by extension, covers those who switch from one gender to the other.

Garden State Equality, the state's most prominent gay rights group, unveiled plans Thursday to run a television commercial in support of the bill - the first TV ad in the United States for transgender rights. The 30-second spot will air 21 times on News 12 New Jersey between Monday and Dec. 9 and 16 times on the station's "Power and Politics" show over the next two weekends.

New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination, enacted in 1945, originally banned discrimination based on race, creed, color, national origin and ancestry. One of the first anti-discrimination laws in the nation, it said, "Such discrimination threatens not only the rights and proper privileges of the inhabitants of the State but menaces the institutions and foundation of a free democratic state."

Ten times since then, state lawmakers have amended the landmark decree, expanding its protections to cover other vulnerable classes, including, in 1991, sexual orientation.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, proposed the newest amendment this year when she was still in the Assembly.

She said, "I hope someday in our country people will be seen for who they are, for their personalities rather than the categories they fit or don't fit."

Federal civil-rights law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin and gender. It does not explicitly cover sexual orientation or gender identity. Gay and transsexual litigants have argued in federal courts that the gender clause, by implication, covers them, but few judges have agreed.

Babs Casbar, a grandfather in Edison, has spent the last 15 years slowly turning into a woman. As political leader of Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey, Casbar has lobbied for the change to the state law.

"We wear a scarlet letter," Casbar said. "Society sees us as freaks. Employers say you can come to work as Bruce but not as Carol. People are afraid of being hassled by security guards, by landlords, everywhere they go. We're a class that has been subject to discrimination and we deserve protection."

Fast facts

The 1945 N.J. Law Against Discrimination protected race, creed, color, national origin and ancestry. It evolved to cover additional categories.

1951: military service

1962: age

1970: marital status, sex

1977: nationality

1981: atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait

1991: sexual orientation

1992: familial status

1996: genetic information

2002: public housing aid

2003: disability, domestic partnership status


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