Cleveland City Council May Amend Non-Discrimination Ordinance to Accommodate Transgender Community

One Goal: Allow People To Use Restrooms That Match Their Gender Identity

Next week, Cleveland City Council members will debate new language in the city's non-discrimination ordinance. The marquee item — one that the local trans community has been continually fighting for — is the ability to use public restrooms that match someone's gender identity. 

The ordinance, which will be discussed during a Nov. 12 committee meeting at City Hall, begins by updating the law that declares that businesses and "places of pubic accommodation" cannot discriminate in offering goods and services. The new ordinance would include "gender identity or expression" in its anti-discrimination language. Most practically, the ordinance will allow people to use the restroom that corresponds to their own gender identity. Businesses discriminating in that sense could face a $1,000 fine.

Councilmen Joe Cimperman and Matt Zone introduced the legislation, and, as they've pointed out, it's a long time coming. 

Other stakeholders have also pointed to this legislation update as a natural result of Gay Games 9 being held in Cleveland this past summer. Many city leaders and business owners went through the Diversity Center's LGBTQ cultural competency training program and, with regard to the story here, learned about the trans community's oft-oppressed role in society. For instance, per the National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2011, 81 percent of Ohio's transgender population reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job; 28 percent lost a job.

The city ordinance here doesn't really deal with employment matters (or, another major subject, housing matters), but advocates fighting for real change point out that this is a major first step.

Earlier this month, Scene met up with local LGBT activist Zoë Lapin. She explained that the struggle to for rights is often a grassroots effort.

"When you're living in a state that doesn't have any protections for LGBTQ people in general — as far as employment and everything is concerned — I mean, you're looking at discrimination on a smaller level here and on a city level," Lapin said. "A lot of that effort [to gain rights] has to be done at a smaller level."

To wit, the conversations that come out of this debate will help shape Cleveland's image — an image that could either deter large swaths of the population or encourage more families to move here and participate in the local economy. 

Here's a bit of dialogue we shared this past summer from Christen DuVernay, programming director at the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio:
"I think that it is going to have an astronomical impact on us — more than folks realize right now and especially when we're talking about 'economic impact,'" DuVernay says. "That's a buzzword right now around the Gay Games. People are like, 'Oh! They're going to bring so much money here. There's such an economic impact!'

"My challenge to that is there has always been an economic impact. I can't tell you how many of my peers have left Cleveland and left Ohio — people who are incredibly educated and really have a lot to offer to the economic development of the city, but they leave. They go to places like New York or places like San Francisco — places where they have more rights."
Hopefully the council legislation on hand advances the city's goals a bit.

Now, not that this is advised at all, but you can cycle through the cheery NEOMG comments about this story — and the inevitable comments at the bottom of this page — to get a sense of the absurdity that follows conversations like this. Example: "Do you have a daughter? Do you mind a bunch of men walking into the restroom with her? Yeah did not think so." The updated law isn't going to allow men to hang out in women's restrooms or vice versa. This points to a fundamental misunderstanding of who the transgender community comprises, of what "transgender" as a signifier denotes.

Nonsense commentary like the above has no place in the forthcoming debate. Rights matter in society, and they are too often denied to various groups. The council's discussion, one that will deal with a sensitive topic, should be an interesting one — 1:30 p.m. Nov. 12 in Room 217 at City Hall. 
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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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