MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Berkeley, California is famous for taking on liberal causes, which is why officials there may not have expected a controversy over a proposal to help city workers pay for sex change operations. The amount of cash at stake is relatively small.
But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it still stirred up a debate over how much compassion the city can afford in these tough economic times.
RICHARD GONZALES, Host:
Lynn Riordan sits in a Berkeley coffee shop known for hosting neighborhood meetings. She's a fixture here. She works in the city's finance department and she's active in her union.
BLOCK: I suppose the unusual thing about me is I'm a transsexual woman. They estimate 1 in 50,000 people are born this way.
GONZALES: That is, in Riordan's case, she was born as a boy, but she says she knew something wasn't right.
BLOCK: When I was five, I realized I was a girl. I never thought I was a boy. I quickly learned, however, though, that people wanted me to pretend to be a boy.
GONZALES: Riordan finally had a sex change operation eight years ago when she was 49 years old. 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.
BLOCK: We're campaigning to remove the discriminatory restrictions against treating transsexuality and its related medical problems. Right now, there's discrimination, and you know, tough luck. If you have this condition, you don't get treated. If you got every other condition, they'll treat you.
GONZALES: 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.
BLOCK: It's not something that's cosmetic or something that's recreational. 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 a very last step in that process.
GONZALES: 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.
BLOCK: 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?
GONZALES: Ann Slaby is a former Berkeley zoning commissioner.
BLOCK: 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?
GONZALES: And at a local grocery store, the proposal is a ready topic.
Taj Johns is a retired city employee.
BLOCK: What they need to do, if they're doing something like that, is to set up a fund for anybody that may need assistance with some type of medical treatment. 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.
GONZALES: Michael Wilson, a nurse, says he supports the idea as a good use of public funds.
BLOCK: Especially because it's not something that's going down the drain and never coming back. When you look at what - the life of a transgender person, being able to be move into the body type that works for them is actually going to be more productive for society as we move forward.
GONZALES: $20,000 is admittedly small change in the scope of the city budget. But many question whether it should be offered when Berkeley faces more than $250 million in unfunded pension liabilities.
BLOCK: Not to me, but I'm not in that situation.
GONZALES: George Woodward is a housing contractor.
BLOCK: Berkeley has a history of fighting for issues that are outside the normal range, the regular range. And that's what the town is known for. It wouldn't surprise me.
GONZALES: 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.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.