Identity Crisis

While St. Petersburg's City Council prepares to vote on whether it will amend the human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, an example of why the amendment is needed may be coming to light. Pam Van Order spent about a year working for the St. Petersburg Times as one of those people who stand outdoors in all kinds of weather giving motorists a chance to buy the Sunday paper. At the beginning of her employment, Van Order identified herself as a male — she used a male name and wore traditional men's clothing — then she decided to make a change. She began the process of transforming from male to female.

Van Order started wearing makeup. Her supervisor was not pleased, she says. "He said, "If you're wearing makeup when I come back, you don't have a job,'" she recalls.

Van Order tried to explain that she was becoming more female than male. She told her supervisor that not allowing her to wear makeup was tantamount to discrimination. She held her ground and he did not fire her.

Until someone told him she was wearing a bra.

Apparently that was just too much. The supervisor called Van Order into his office at the end of her shift but he refused to discuss the situation because she had brought along a witness, she says.

Van Order asked if she still had a job.

"What job?" was his reply, she recalls.

"I knew right there that I didn't have a job and he wasn't man enough to tell me it was because of this (transgender issue)," says Van Order.

According to a company spokesperson, the St. Petersburg Times does not comment on why employees leave. "We don't have a policy (on transgender employees)," added Anthea Penrose. "I've worked with transgender employees here without any problem at all."

Furthering Van Order's woes, she has no one to officially complain to. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declined to investigate her complaint and so did the city of St. Petersburg. According to Van Order's attorney, Karen Doering, the city's Department of Community Affairs replied to Van Order's complaint with a letter stating that they had no jurisdiction over it.

"Basically they shut her down," says Doering, who runs a nonprofit law firm dedicated to protecting gay, lesbian and transgender rights.

Since there is no ordinance protecting transgender rights, Van Order may have no legal recourse for getting her job back or collecting back pay. "It's really up to the St. Petersburg Times," Doering says. "If they want to step up and do the right thing they can."

Doering's not counting on that, though, which may be wise. In a recent editorial, the Times reversed its support of gay-rights group Equality Florida's suggested language for the ordinance, which covered transgender issues. The Nov. 15 editorial poked fun at the wording: "Its proposed definition even includes "having or being perceived as having a self-image or identity not traditionally associated with one's biological maleness or femaleness.' Exactly what does that mean?"

Part of what it means is this: If the language was included in the ordinance, Van Order couldn't have been fired for wearing makeup and a bra to work.

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