MONTPELIER -- Ace McArleton was born female, but the 28-year-old Plainfield resident says he never felt comfortable as a woman. In his early twenties, the Chicago native began cutting his hair short, wearing men's clothes, and referring to himself as "he." Since that time, he says he's experienced discrimination based on his gender identity, even here in Vermont.
That's why McArleton -- a jack-of-all-trades who works as a bartender, builder and community mentor at Twinfield Union High School, and is part owner of Montpelier's Black Sheep Books -- showed up at the Statehouse last Tuesday wearing a crisp white shirt, navy blue tie and wool vest. He was one of several openly transgender Vermonters and their allies who came to support H. 865. The bill would add "gender identity and expression" to protected categories such as race, creed and sexual orientation in the state's anti-discrimation statutes. Vermont's GLBT groups have been rallying their members to ask legislators to support it. Seven other states, and 76 city and county organizations, have already passed similar measures, as has IBM, Vermont's largest employer.
The bill was first introduced four years ago as H. 478, by Representative Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg). Last spring the Judiciary Committee took testimony on it. All of it was favorable.
The committee held a short second hearing on the bill on February 23. New language was added in the process, so the committee gave the bill a new number -- H. 865 -- before passing it to the full House with an 8 to 1 vote. Just one legislator, David Sunderland (R-Rutland Town), raised questions during the House floor debate; approved by a voice vote on Wednesday, March 1, the bill now moves on to the Senate -- and, ultimately, a Republican governor.
Supporters like McArleton say it's about time Vermont addressed this issue. He reports being harassed both on the street and on the job. He recalls one incident a few years back -- one of his former employers began requiring workers to wear gender-specific uniforms. McArleton refused to wear the feminine attire. He says his boss initially gave him a hard time, then dismissed him.
"It was really embarrassing," he recalls. "It was painful. At the time, I didn't have other work."
McArleton says his current co-workers are all very supportive. "They all 'he' me," he says. But he notes that other transgender Vermonters aren't so lucky. He claims that gender identity-based discrimination is a common occurrence. The most famous case in Vermont involved Hardwick police officer Anthony Barreto-Neto, who was fired from his job after town officials learned that he had been born a woman. Barreto-Neto sued and the town settled out of court in 2003.
This sort of discrimination often goes unreported, since many transgender people are afraid to come forward, either for fear of retaliation, or because they don't think it will do any good. Trans advocates hope this new bill will change that perception.
Kevin Blier sees it differently. The director of the Rutland-based Center for American Cultural Renewal opposes the bill. "My concern is what's it going to do to the classroom?" he asks. "To the small business owner?"
He cites an example: Say an owner of a small dry cleaning business hires a man to work the front desk, and the employee starts showing up for work in a dress. Customers who object to the worker's behavior begin to avoid the business, but the owner can't fire the employee for fear of being sued. "That could be very damaging to business," Blier insists. "There's no protection for the employer in that situation."
Blier also notes that the American Psychiatric Association still lists "gender identity disorder" as an illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). "I'm not sure the legislature should be in the business of giving minority protections and special privileges to people who have a clinical psychosexual disorder," he says.
Blier objects even more strenuously to how the bill was passed out of committee. Blier had been tracking the bill for months as H. 478. When the committee acted on H. 865, it initially escaped his notice. "You know when I found out about [H. 865]?" he asks. "Yesterday. You tell me how much time I had to react . . . This was a sneaky, underhanded procedural maneuver to catch opponents off guard."
In a phone interview after the vote, Lippert seems taken aback by Blier's accusation. Lippert, who schedules Judiciary Committee testimony, says he was unaware that anyone was organizing opposition to the bill. Blier never contacted him to ask to testify on it; Blier confirms this is true. "If he had any interest [in testifying] between last spring and last week, all he had to do was let me know or let the legislative staff person know," Lippert notes.
Lippert adds that many House Republicans voted for the bill. "The leadership of the Republican caucus was not organizing against it," he observes.
Lippert suggests that support might have had something to do with the testimony of Republican Vi Luginbuhl, a former representative, whose granddaughter is now a grandson. Luginbuhl and her daughter, a doctor, wrote letters supporting the legislation.
"That was powerful," says Lippert. "It made an impact on people."
As for Blier's charge that transgender people are mentally ill, Lippert, a gay man and former psychotherapist, notes that the DSM once pathologized homosexuality, too.
Lippert says Senate leaders have told him the bill will move in the Senate during this session, and might land on the governor's desk. He says a representative from the Governor's office has indicated that Douglas doesn't think the bill is necessary. Jason Gibbs, the Governor's press secretary, did not return a phone call for this story.
Transgender people are certainly more visible than they once were. Five-hundred fifty recently attended a weekend conference at the University of Vermont. The movie Transamerica, starring part-time Vermonter Felicity Huffman, brought the issue to this year's Academy Awards. Ace McArleton would like to see that growing empathy extend to the daily lives of Vermonters. But for now, he'll settle for legal protections.
He says, "I see this bill as a starting point."