Berkeley, Calif., is famous for taking on bold, liberal causes, which is why officials there may not have expected the controversy over a proposal to help city workers afford sex change operations.
The amount of cash at stake in Berkeley is fairly small. But it has still stirred up a debate over how much compassion the city can afford in these tough economic times.
Lynn Riordan is a fixture at a Berkeley coffee shop known for hosting neighborhood meetings. She works in the city's finance department and she's active in her union.
"I suppose the unusual thing about me is I'm a transsexual woman," Riordan said. "They estimate 1 in 50,000 are born this way."
Riordan was born as a boy, but she says she knew something wasn't right.
"When I was 5, I realized I was a girl. I never thought I was a boy," she says. "I quickly learned, however ... that people wanted me to pretend to be a boy."
Riordan finally had a sex change operation eight years ago when she was 49 years old.
Gender Reassignment Surgery
She paid for the procedure herself, which at the time cost $11,000. Now she's advocating on behalf of transsexuals who can't afford the surgery and who are Berkeley city employees.
"We're campaigning to remove the discriminatory restrictions against treating transsexuality and its related medical problems," said Riordan. "Right now there's discrimination, and you know, tough luck if you have this condition, you don't get treated. If you have every other condition, they'll treat you."
Gender reassignment surgery currently isn't covered by Berkeley's two health insurance providers. So the City Council is considering setting aside a total of $20,000 a year to offset the cost.
City Councilman Darryl Moore spearheads the proposal, following the example of San Francisco, which has offered that benefit for a decade.
"It's not something that is cosmetic or something that is recreational," said Moore. "And it's not something you do in a day. You can't just walk into a doctor's office and say you want sexual reassignment surgery. It's a very long process and it's [the] very last step in that process."
The $20,000 would be available to any city employee on a first come, first served basis. To qualify, the employee has to have lived as an opposite-sex person for at least a year and already undergone hormone therapy.
Around town, even in this liberal bastion, the proposal raises eyebrows and questions.
Controversy Over The Proposal
"I was shocked when I saw this on the agenda for the City Council and I thought, 'What in the world is going on here?' " said Ann Slaby, a former Berkeley zoning commissioner. "I have a great deal of empathy for people who feel that they're caught in a body that they don't wish to have. But the question becomes, who's going to pay for it? How come I'm paying?"
Others think the proposal should be modified a bit.
"What they need to do, if they're doing something like that is set up a fund for anybody that may need assistance with some type of medical treatment," said Taj Johns, a retired city employee. "For example, if people need help with dentistry, people need help with eyeglasses, anybody could apply for money from that fund. So it just shouldn't be for any targeted group. It should be available for anybody."
Michael Wilson, a nurse, said he supports the idea as a good use of public funds.
"Especially because it's not something that's going down the drain and never coming back," said Wilson. "When you look at the life of a transgender person, being able to be move into the body type that actually works for them is actually going to be more productive for society as we move forward."
In the scope of a city budget, $20,000 is admittedly small change. But many question whether it should be offered when Berkeley faces more than $250 million in unfunded pension liabilities.
"Berkeley has a history of fighting for issues that are outside the normal range, the regular range," said George Woodward, a housing contractor. "And that's what the town is known for.
Woodward said it wouldn't surprise him if the proposal passes.
Whether the Berkeley City Council will continue that tradition and vote to pay for its employees' sex change operations will be weighed in a vote in mid-February.