The unsigned e-mail was sent from a pseudonymous Yahoo account to Paula's professional Web site. "You're fucking sick," it said. "Your life is fucking messed up . . . You shouldn't be teaching anyone's children."
Somehow, the writer had found out that Paula, who chairs the accounting department at an Indiana business college, is a transsexual woman.
She traced the message back to another account, which belonged to a student she'd been tutoring. Soon thereafter, the student's father lodged a formal complaint with Paula's boss, impugning her professional competence.
The charges were judged to be baseless, and the father was advised to withdraw his daughter if he continued to object to Paula's employment.
With another boss or in another part of Indiana, this real-life story might have ended differently. It still comes as a surprise to many Hoosiers that you can be fired from a job in Indiana — or denied credit, barred from a public accommodation, or evicted from an apartment — simply for being or appearing to be a transgendered or gender-variant person.
To address this situation, the Bloomington Human Rights Commission (BHRC) voted unanimously on Sept. 26 to recommend that the City Council add gender identity to the protected categories in Bloomington's human-rights ordinance.
The Commissioners also proposed a definition: "Gender identity means a person's actual or perceived gender-related attributes, self-image, appearance, expression, or behavior, whether such characteristics differ from those traditionally associated with the person's assigned sex at birth."
Ann Arbor, Mich., is among the cities that use nearly the same definition.
According to BHRC attorney Barbara McKinney, compliance would be voluntary until the state civil-rights code is also amended to include gender identity. Details of the proposal have been left to City Council to flesh out.
To date, no Indiana municipality has adopted gender-identity protections. But six states, 10 counties and 64 cities across the U.S. have done so, according to the Web site of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF).
Particularly striking in this regard is next-door-neighbor Illinois, where Champaign adopted protections for transgender people almost 30 years ago. In all, 10 Illinois cities extended protections before the state legislature added gender identity to the Illinois civil-rights code earlier this year.
McKinney says BHRC considered gender-identity protections in 1993, when sexual orientation was added to Bloomington's ordinance, but didn't pursue the matter. Current Commissioner Emily Bowman revived it more than a year and a half ago, and several BHRC meetings since then have involved discussion about whether and how to extend protections. (Full disclosure: the author has attended some of these meetings to advocate for protections.)
BHRC's unanimous decision in September deviates markedly from McKinney's position and that of her boss, Mayor Mark Kruzan. They believe the ordinance should remain unchanged and BHRC should make an administrative interpretation of "sex" to include gender identity.
A ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Smith v. City of Salem (2004), supports such an interpretation, McKinney argues, and would empower BHRC to compel compliance.
McKinney says she feels "an ethical obligation to argue for the strongest possible interpretation of the law, consistent with sound legal reasoning."
Bloomington Transgender Group founder Bree Hartlage sees the matter differently. She says she's consulted more than 50 transgender people about the Bloomington ordinance, 15 of them from Bloomington.
"No one I've spoken to wants the amendment to go forward without explicit use of the words 'gender identity' or without enforceability," she says. "Adding the words would be an open expression of support and an indication of buy-in from the city, that it's interested in preventing discrimination and mediating complaints."
Paula, the accounting professor, agrees it's important to add the words. City personnel and BHRC members come and go, she points out. If gender identity were to be covered only through an administrative interpretation, "a new commission could choose at their discretion to accept a case or not."
Lisa Mottet, legislative lawyer for NGLTF's Transgender Civil Rights Project, points out that businesses typically prefer to see explicit language rather than deal with an administrative interpretation.
"They want to know for sure how to keep on the right side of the law," she says, "and our experience suggests that they also comply better with explicit prohibitions."
For Caleb, a transgender Bloomingtonian, "the visibility of friendliness on the part of city government is important. Including the actual words 'gender identity' pops out for trans people as meaning trans-inclusion," he notes.
"It also sets up an expectation that would have an effect over time," he adds. "Bloomington probably has the highest per capita population of trans people in Indiana. Other trans people will move here if they know the city has adopted protections. Non-trans GLB and progressive non-trans non-queer people will take notice too when deciding where to move or to do business."
In short, a rift has opened up between BHRC and transgender community members on one side and McKinney and the mayor's office on the other. A delegation from BHRC tried in vain, beginning in April, to schedule a meeting with Kruzan to discuss their options, rather than communicating through an intermediary (McKinney).
McKinney, according to BHRC minutes for April 25, 2005, has expressed doubts that Kruzan would support City Council if it approves the BHRC's recommendations. Kruzan told this reporter he's strongly inclined to add protections but is obliged to take a "better safe than sorry" approach until he sees the Council's actual proposal.
For Hartlage, the better choice is clear and deeply personal: "The words need to be written down. Transgender people have lived in the closet long enough. We don't want the language to remain in the closet."
John Clower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.