Vermonters may soon have more protection against bigotry-based bullying. Policy-makers on three fronts -- in the Burlington schools, at University of Vermont and in the legislature -- are working to safeguard individuals' freedom of gender expression.
The Burlington School Board is expected to approve changes to its student anti-harassment policy this week that would add the words "gender identity or gender expression" to the list of characteristics guarded against intimidating, hostile or offensive behavior.
The new language wasn't prompted by a particular incident or trend. It was spurred, in part, by a 2004 change in state law around student harassment policies. The school board's actions also follow months of review, according to Jeanne Collins, director of Special Services for the Burlington School District. As of press time, the board was expected to sign off on the revised language at its Tuesday night meeting, with a final vote scheduled for March 8.
"The Burlington School Board tends to think outside the box often in the protection of our kids, and they just wanted to be more inclusive," Collins says. Assuming the new policy is approved, Burlington would become the first district in the state to offer added rights to students based on their gender identity or expression.
"'Gender Identity' means an individual's internal sense of their sex, being male, female or androgynous. Since this sense is internal, it is not necessarily visible to or perceived by others," the new policy reads. "'Gender Expression' means how a person outwardly represents or communicates one's gender identity to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics."
Queen City high schools are slightly ahead of the University of Vermont. Last April, student activists asked the President's Commission on LGBT Equity to consider a similar revision to the school's nondiscrimination policy. There's been little or no trustee action on that request, although UVM President Dan Fogel did agree last Thursday to add a footnote to the school's existing nondiscrimination policy to include discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
That doesn't constitute a permanent amendment, however. So on Monday, about 18 volunteers from the student group, Free to Be LGBTA, stormed the trustees' diversity committee meeting to demand the group promptly addresses this matter. The trustees promised to take it up at their May meeting.
Five states -- including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island and, most recently, Illinois -- already extend legal protections to nonconforming gender identities. That is also codified into law in 62 cities and 10 counties outside of Vermont.
"We are definitely behind the curve on this one," notes Christopher Kaufman, executive director of the R.U.1.2? Vermont's Queer Community Center in Burlington. Kaufman and others have been working with state Representative Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg) to draft legislation that would add comparable language to Vermont's civil rights protections. That bill, which is expected to be introduced in the next week or two, will be similar to the one Lippert introduced last year, H.366, but with revised language. "Gender identity" has been changed to "gender identity and expression."
Kaufman explains that the additional wording would cover more than just those people who have already undergone sex-change surgery or hormone therapy to alter their physical appearance. The new language would also protect, say, a very feminine boy who is being harassed in school because of his mannerisms or choice of clothes, or a very masculine woman who is told by her employer that she must wear a skirt.
"We hope that any opposition we come across would understand that we're looking to clarify, not change, the existing law," Kaufman says. According to the Vermont Attorney General's Office, transgendered people are already covered under the state's existing sex-discrimination statute. That opinion was issued after an anti-harassment lawsuit was filed by Tony Barreto-Neto, a Hardwick police officer who was fired from his job after his boss learned that he was a female-to-male transsexual. The Town of Hardwick later agreed to pay Barreto-Neto a settlement of $90,000 and adopt a transgender nondiscrimination policy.
GLBT groups like R.U.1.2? are hoping lawmakers will recognize the need to clarify Vermont's existing law to forestall similar lawsuits involving discrimination or harassment in housing, education and other public accommodations. The proposed legislation doesn't offer a legal definition of the word "transgendered" -- presumably because trying to draw clear-cut lines on the fuzzy issue of gender identity is part of the problem.