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San Diego cross-dressers want law off the books

Only used 30 times since 1992

— Ask Janet -- not her real name -- and she'll tell you there are three things wrong with life in San Diego if you're a transsexual.

"We need employment protection, we need homeless shelters that will accept transgendered people, and we need a repeal of the cross-dressing law."

But for Janet, who says cities like San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Minneapolis, "and all of Europe" have enacted laws to protect transsexuals in employment and housing, the chief target is a local edict -- unique to San Diego -- that singles out cross-dressers.

Municipal Code 56.19, which became law in 1966, prohibits people from "appearing in a public place, or in a place open to public view, in apparel customarily worn by the opposite sex, with the intent to deceive another person for the purpose of committing an illegal act."

Janet was one of the transsexual people involved in a recent conference held in Hillcrest's Craftsman Hall organized by local gay activist Mark Gabrish Conlan. The conference advocated opposition to "status offenses," an increasing number of local ordinances giving police the power to target specific groups in society, including gays, teens, and transsexuals.

Janet insists on remaining anonymous because she says she has been warned "by people with the power in town" that there'll be less chance of getting the cross-dressing law repealed if she is seen "going public" on this. Also, she says, publicizing her real name would "kill my chances of getting employment, if people discover I'm a transsexual. That's how delicate it is right now."

"I sit before you a criminal," Janet told the San Diego Human Relations Commission (a body established "to reduce bigotry and prejudice in San Diego") last May 14. "I can leave this building and be arrested because of the cut of my clothing. My birth sex is male. This is my voice. This is who I am. I have characteristics of both genders: more female than male."

She claimed that municipal code 56.19, though purportedly aimed at transvestite prostitutes, has only been used against male-to-female transvestites of color. She told the commission that between 1994 and 1996, 27 arrests were made citing this law. Twenty-two of those arrested were Latino, four African-American, and one Filipino. She claimed police use the law to harass transsexuals, knowing most cases will never make it to court.

"It's very tricky in the way 56.19 was written," says Mark Conlan, who edits Zenger's magazine, a publication that deals with gay and lesbian issues, "apparently because the person who wrote it back in 1966, then-City Attorney Ed Butler, was aware that an ordinance that flatly prohibited people from dressing in clothes of the opposite gender would be invalidated by the courts as unconstitutional. So his idea was to write the ordinance in such a way that it would appear to have a legitimate law enforcement function. What it says is that you're not allowed to wear apparel 'customarily worn by the opposite sex' -- whatever that means in 1997 -- 'for the purposes of deceit in order to commit an unlawful act.' Notice the ordinance doesn't say that you actually have to commit 'some unlawful act,' simply that you can be arrested if you're dressed in the clothes of the opposite sex 'for the purposes of committing an unlawful act.'"

Conlan says Lieutenant Jim Duncan, head of the San Diego Police Department Vice Unit, told him he considered this law aimed at prostitutes. "This begs the question of why it should be more illegal for a man dressed as a woman to commit prostitution than it is for a woman dressed as a woman or a man dressed as a man?"

The stated reason for the law at the time was that in 1966 authorities were worried about men dressed as women robbing the sailors who crowded downtown during the height of the Vietnam War.

"That was their excuse at the time," says Conlan. "Our wonderful boys from the Navy would come off and be looking for a little ass and find that it had something attached to it that they weren't expecting. [They worried] that these guys dressed as women would beat them up and take their money. But nothing required a specific piece of legislation aimed at cross-dressers. Robbery is [already] a crime, prostitution is a crime. It seems to me that the laws against those things are perfectly adequate. You don't need an extra law like this to be able to enforce them."

"You can't think of anybody who's treated worse in society than transgendered people," says Janet. She says most transsexuals aren't prostitutes and are just trying to live normal lives. "The people that you see [in the streets] who are transsexual are usually those that don't look very good. They stand out. The majority of transsexuals, you wouldn't know, if you passed them on the street. And remember, half of all transsexuals are women who become men. They generally look even better."

Janet, who says she's a "middle-aged woman" who has "put on weight," lives alone and says her life battling for a comfortable place in society is typical of a transsexual.

She was born in 1951 in Barstow, California. "I lived a very isolated [life] on a farm for the first six years of my life. My father was an extremely masculine man. He was what I call a 'rage-oholic.' He was very abusive to my mother and to us children. My mother was your typical June Cleaver-type mother.

"In very early childhood, I became aware that...I was really a girl. I had a younger sister and brother. For many years I felt [my father's raging masculinity] was the reason I was the way I was. But we now know that transsexuals come from all kinds of home life. There are many who come from very stable, loving homes and whose parents are very supportive of them. Experts now say they feel it may be a little bit of environmental influence but a definite biological part as well. I remember playing in my mother's jewelry box and wearing her clothes, pretending to be a girl. My relatives and friends and neighbors were telling me that I should have been born a girl at this early age. And although that did not influence me at all, it just validated what I already knew about myself. I was so feminine-looking and acting that it was quite obvious to them something was wrong."

School was very difficult.

"In our society, if you have characteristics of both genders or characteristics of the opposite gender, it makes you something that is okay to assault or hit or name-call, so there was a lot of abuse by schoolmates. I was a child who had a lot of potential, but I always sat at the back of the class and slumped down in my desk and hoped that nobody would even see me there, because there was always so much violence [directed at] me. It was devastating to me because it made me feel very inhibited. It really trampled upon my self-esteem. It made it very difficult for me to concentrate in school, because I never knew when somebody was going to come up and hit me."

In 1966, everything changed. "I read in a newspaper that for the first time in America, they were openly doing these operations to change sexes. I was 15. And that was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing, and I knew right then that God had answered my prayers. There was an answer for me and for what I was going through."

Janet finally underwent the physical transformation to womanhood in 1975, in an operation at Stanford University. She was 23.

"I can honestly tell you I have never wished that I hadn't gone through this [operation]. I wish that society was a lot more compassionate, but I've never wished that. Before it was like my body and my mind were out of whack. Now my body and mind are in synch. I'm at peace with myself."

But life hasn't been roses since her operation, even when Janet was living in San Francisco. "I've had a number of jobs. The vast majority of them have been pretty bad. At one job, with Caltrans, in San Francisco -- I was actually assaulted at work. The other employees there had become aware. They start picking up on little things. 'She's tall.' 'Her hands are a little bit larger than the average female.' 'Her feet are a little bit larger than the average female.' 'Sometimes her voice cracks. It goes a little bit deeper than usual.' 'Is her neck a little bit thicker than it should be?' They start adding things up. And after about three months, I could always count on something happening. Things would start getting real nasty. Almost like clockwork. People think of San Francisco as being so liberal. But when I lived there, they had nothing [to protect us legally]. In fact, we had a very large community of transsexuals there -- hundreds -- who were pretty much locked out of work."

Janet says San Francisco passed a law four years ago to protect transsexuals in employment and housing. "And that's what we need here in San Diego. There is the 1964 Civil Rights law, but people like the [federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] won't enforce it for us as they do for other groups such as people of color and the physically disabled."

She says the U.S. lags behind Europe's attitude toward transsexuals and ignores its own native traditions. "Transgendered people in American Indian tribes were often assigned positions of authority or particular respect, like that of healer. In India, transgendered people are hired to be involved in marriage ceremonies. It has to do with fertility rites. Different cultures aren't as bigoted as ours. Personally -- even though this is an unpopular stance -- in our society I see [transsexuality] as a disability. That's why two years ago I started speaking out, fighting the disparity, fighting for my rights."

Barbara Warden, fifth district city councilwoman, says she couldn't believe the cross-dressing law when she first heard of it. "[Human Relations Commissioner] Tony Zampella told me about how, under 56.19, it was illegal for me to dress as a man or a man to dress as a woman. I really thought it was a joke. I didn't think it was a real ordinance. I met with San Diego Police Chief Sanders a week or so later. I thought perhaps [he would tell me] it was a tool they needed. But it has only been used about 30 times since 1992. It's a very infrequently used law. I said to Chief Sanders I felt it was not necessary to have it on the books. It has an interesting vagueness about it that allows it to be used or abused."

Warden thinks most city councilmembers would have been surprised to discover 56.19 on the books. Councilmembers Kehoe, Mathis, and Stallings are likely to support a repeal of the law -- as long as Chief Sanders agrees.

And Sanders, according to his assistant Victoria Gilner, won't fight a repeal of the law. "If the Human Relations Commission were to determine there is a perception this ordinance is being used simply to discriminate, and not as an effective crime-fighting tool, and recommended to the city council that it be repealed, we wouldn't object to that recommendation."

In March, Warden is expected to introduce the proposal to the Public Safety and Neighborhood Service Committee, which she chairs.

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