Corporations and lawmakers are expanding protections against sexual harassment and discrimination to cover transsexuals, cross-dressers and others who fall outside the traditional notions of gender identity.
In the last two years, 19 companies in the Fortune 500 -- including Bank One Corp and Microsoft -- have banned discrimination based on "gender identity and expression." Sixty-five US cities and counties have similar protections, with 16 ordinances passed last year.
The measures extend protections to men perceived as effeminate and women viewed as masculine.
"There is a sense that laws specifically based on sexual orientation are not capturing everyone," said Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director for workplace issues at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest lesbian and gay political organization in the US.
In August, California's recalled governor, Gray Davis, signed legislation banning discrimination in housing and employment based on gender stereotypes or transgendered status. Three other states -- Minnesota, Rhode Island and New Mexico -- have similar protections.
Another four states -- New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts -- have had either court or administrative rulings that could be interpreted as banning discrimination against gender expression or status as a transsexual, according to Human Rights Campaign.
Socially conservative groups have opposed the measures, arguing that they force owners of religious businesses to support a way of life they morally oppose, and would hold up transsexuals as role models for children.
At some companies, however, the protections are seen as a straightforward way to comply with a patchwork of statutes that protect transsexuals in some cities and states, as well as to reduce taunting and discrimination against those whose appearances clash with more traditional beliefs.
Proponents see the trend as a natural progression from the protections for women and gays against harassment.
"Gender identity and expression was the next step," said Maria Campbell, director of diversity at SC Johnson & Son, based in Racine, Wisconsin.
Transsexuals are disproportionately pushed out of jobs, kicked out of housing and beaten up or murdered, according to studies. Excluded from a society confused and sometimes disgusted by their way of living, they tend to get less education and are more likely to lack health insurance, studies show.
A survey funded by the District of Columbia in 2000 showed that most "gender variant" residents earned less than US$10,000 a year, with one in three saying they had been a victim of violence or crime brought on by hatred of gays or transsexuals.
In a poll of 392 male-to-female transsexuals in San Francisco in 1997, nearly half the respondents reported facing job discrimination, while a quarter said they faced housing discrimination.
"Even though it's only a patchwork, at this point this is how civil rights proceeds," said Riki Wilchins, executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition in Washington.
"Ten years ago there was none of this. All this has happened very quickly," Wilchins said.
A growing sense of protection among transsexual workers is tangible in a city like San Francisco, considered one of the country's most liberal places to live. Indicative of that is the experience of Ina Fried, a technology reporter who in May came out to colleagues and business contacts as transsexual.