Feature | Gloves Come Off: Round One begins at the Legislature to end prejudice against the transgendered | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 23, 2008 News » Cover Story

Feature | Gloves Come Off: Round One begins at the Legislature to end prejudice against the transgendered 

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Long Road Ahead
Rebecca Wilder knows about transgender discrimination. “I was fired as soon as I told my boss that I was going to do [gender transition],” Wilder says. In 2000, she was a terminal manager for a since-bankrupt Salt Lake City trucking company. Looking back, Wilder says she could understand the company’s argument though, at the time, it was a shock for her to be escorted off the premises of the company like a trespasser. The day before, she had been salaried upper-management.

“Behind closed doors, they told me they couldn’t handle all the rumors and attention I would bring to the company being a transsexual,” Wilder says. The machismo of the male-dominated trucking industry was apparently no place for Wilder.

But losing her job was only the beginning.

Wilder soon found she couldn’t find health insurance that would underwrite her as a woman since her birth certificate categorized her as male. A Boise, Idaho, native, Wilder came from one of only three states (along with Ohio and Tennessee) that won’t allow people to change their sex on their birth certificates. Because some of her documents were legally changed to reflect her new sex but others could not be, red flags shot up for health insurers. Wilder has been denied health-care coverage for the past seven years.

On top of that, her ex-wife sued for custody of their two children after Wilder started the transition process. During the two-and-a-half-year-long court battle, Wilder managed to keep custody of her eldest son but lost complete custody of her younger son who was 4 during the trial.

“Without a job, I just couldn’t pay my attorney any longer,” Wilder says, of her lost custody battle. “He’s 11 now, and I haven’t seen him since. I just hope I’ll be able to track him down when he turns 18.” In addition to losing custody, the judge in the case required that Wilder attend one year of psychotherapy.

“I was treated worse than a sex offender,” she says.

Wilder could not keep a steady job for the next five years. “I would go through interviews and get as far as talking salary, but once they ran a background check and found out about my past, suddenly they didn’t have an opening anymore,” she says.

Wilder went from a management job that paid $52,000 a year with a company car and expense account to a $6-per-hour barista position at the Utah Pride Center’s coffee house. Wilder eventually decided the only way she could avoid the rampant discrimination in the trucking industry was to be her own boss.

In 2004, she started her own long-haul freight company, based out of Ogden and running south to Mexico and north to Chicago.

“There’s a big difference when you own your own company. Nobody runs background checks on you so they don’t know. People I work with now still don’t know [I’m transgender]. I would know—they hit on me every day,” Wilder jokes.

She considers herself fully integrated as a female but stays active in supporting trans issues. She was a founding member of Transgender Education and Awareness (TEA) of Utah, a group trying to educate the community about transgenderism.

“When people think of transsexual, they think ‘Jerry Springer,’ ‘drag queen’; they think ‘perversion’—that’s the stereotype we have to overcome, and that’s why we got dropped out of the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA).”

LGB, Hold the T
Wilder worries the progress of Johnson’s bill might be a sad re-enactment of what happened nationally in 2007 when protections for transgender people were dropped from the proposed ENDA.

“I don’t have any respect for the national [ENDA lobby], but we’ve been told that won’t happen here,” Wilder says, with some skepticism. “Rumors are going to fly that if they [gays, lesbians and bisexuals] don’t have us on, then the bill will pass. I think it will start a conflict with the LGB and the T, because that’s what happened nationally,” Wilder says. “We’ll see what happens when the pressure’s on.”

In many ways, transgender issues are a world apart from those of the queer community. The main objective of many trans individuals, after all, is not to stand apart from the majority maintaining their own cultural identity but to fit in and live average lives as the gender they feel they were meant to have.

Todd Hess, a member of the Utah chapter of the Human Rights Committee, a national LGBT advocacy group, has noticed the rift.

“I actually had a [gay] friend say to me recently, ‘I don’t get transgender.’ And I kind of looked at him and said, ‘That’s like when a straight person says, “I don’t get gays.”’ I think it turned a light on for him.”

Rep. Christine Johnson acknowledges some of these fears may be realized in passing her bill. She won’t rule out the possibility of passing the legislation in parts. “This will take baby steps. And when this all comes together, I think, in the end, everyone will be included. When we can accept sexual orientation, we will be able to accept gender identity. Until then, I think people will have to be patient and realize how arduous a process it is to educate people who have no education on these issues.”

While supporters are gearing up for a fight, many remain plagued by doubts.

Wilder supports Johnson’s legislation as vital to providing sanctuary to a community seemingly lost between laws and societal expectations but doubts it will end discrimination. Wilder at one time worked as a cocktail waitress in a California steakhouse, where solid nondiscrimination laws for transgender people exist.

“A co-worker of mine wouldn’t stop telling me that I was going to hell. And so, when I filed a complaint against him and had to admit to my boss I was transgendered, I was fired the next week,” Wilder says. Her boss said the termination was because of anonymous complaints.

“This legislation might get passed—probably not in my lifetime. But, even then, Utah is a right-to-work state, which also means ‘right to fire,’” Wilder says.

In the transgender community, the struggle for acceptance first comes internally, as members acknowledge and draw out the man or woman hidden beneath the ill-fitting anatomy they were born into.

As men and women reborn, their quest for recognition by the law and society may be an operation more dramatic and costly than any surgery imaginable. To rework the taboo and misconceptions of society could mean a cutting away of deeply rooted ignorance, bad jokes and religious hellfire condemnation in trying to piece together a truer community of equals.

Daunting as that task may seem, the pain of living a life in flux is one transgender persons understand well enough on a personal level to know change is something worth fighting for in the whole community.

“In a fairy-tale way. I keep hoping this [legislation] will get passed this year,” Ariana Losco says, “but I know it will take time. All we can do is to keep coming back every session and try and change every ‘nay’ to a ‘yea.’”

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