Kelly: Protecting rights hits home for transgender prof - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:03 pm
Kelly: Protecting rights hits home for transgender prof

Nearly seven years ago, a widely known professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha went before a judge for a personal name change — from Walter to Meredith.

On that morning of June 28, 2005, the judge approved, a public step in the professor's private transition from male to female.

Along with physical procedures and surgeries, legally taking a feminine name — Meredith — was significant for the former two-term president of the UNO Faculty Senate, previously known as Walter M. Bacon Jr.

"I am not gay," Bacon wrote to colleagues in the political science department. "I am not a cross-dresser or transvestite. I am transsexual, or transgendered."

Despite her initial fears of becoming "a social outcast," the professor said, UNO faculty members and students accepted her new identity.

"Around here, I don't get many glances," said Meredith, who stands 6-foot-3. "Some might look at me and think 'I hope you play basketball' or something like that. But aside from that, I blend into the woodwork."

Despite her own acceptance by others, professor Bacon remains a strong supporter of Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray's proposed ordinance that would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The council will hold a public hearing at its 2 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

Though not actively working for its passage as she did two years ago, when a similar proposal narrowly failed on a 3-3 vote, Bacon said it is needed. An anti-discrimination resolution that the council passed last month, she said, "doesn't have the force of law — there are no consequences if there is discrimination."

A University of Nebraska Medical Center questionnaire of Nebraska's LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) found that nearly a third of 770 respondents had experienced job discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

W Meredith Bacon — she doesn't use a period after W, a remnant of her former name — didn't have to reach far for her new name, Meredith. That was her middle name as a man back when everyone at UNO called the professor "Wally."

Some still slip up and call her that, but she says she doesn't point it out when they do.

Though still vitally interested in the LGBT community, especially the problems of the young, she has served out a five-year term on the board of the National Center for Transgender Equality and returned to intensive research in her area of academic expertise, Eastern Europe. She is an expert on the republic of Moldova.

"I'm doing what I was trained to do," she said. "I was not trained to be a transgender activist. I sort of fell into that because of the way I transitioned."

Growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, "Wally" was raised by a father who was an engineer and a mother who was a Wall Street securities analyst. As a boy, Wally felt he was different.

At Colorado College he met his future wife, Lynne, whom he married in 1968. In Paris in 1972, he told her he felt he was not a man, but a woman. In spite of that, they stayed together.

After he earned his Ph.D. in 1976, he accepted a position at UNO. Away from the classroom, he served as "festival herald," welcoming people to Shakespeare on the Green.

By 1998 he was severely depressed over his gender identity, and his therapist suggested that he research transgender issues. In 2004 he and Lynne had a fateful talk — he planned to begin living as a woman.

Various treatments and plastic surgeries led eventually to genital-reassignment surgery in Colorado in 2006.

Meredith and Lynne, who call themselves best friends, remain married. In spite of Meredith's name change and surgeries, she contends it is not a same-sex marriage, which would be illegal in Nebraska.

If someone legally challenged that, she said, the couple would fight it in court.

Lynne, who taught high school French and Spanish for more than three decades at Creighton Prep, now works as a bilingual consumer affairs specialist for ConAgra Foods. The couple are active at All Saints Episcopal Church.

Meredith underwent surgery after a 2010 heart attack caused by severe blockages of three arteries. She also is treated for Type 2 diabetes, but wants to keep working as long as she can.

As part of her return to intensive academic research, she is planning her first overseas trip since her transition — a visit to Germany in June. She anticipates no problem in receiving a passport with her photo marked "F," for female. That will be another milestone in her transition from a man to a woman.

Meredith Bacon says she felt for most of her life that she was a female in a male body. She is glad she made the change to what she believes is her true self.

"The downsides to the decision were very few," she said. "The upsides are tremendous."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

***

The Omaha City Council will hold a public hearing on a GLBT protections ordinance offered by Councilman Ben Gray during its meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Follow along with updates from the meeting and submit questions for staff writer Jeffrey Robb.

Read the current city ordinances, with Gray's proposed changes, here.

Find the mobile version of the chat here.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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