S.F. Again on Cutting Edge With Bid to Ban Weight Bias

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marilyn Wann remembers how alienated she felt by the blatantly poor taste of a San Francisco ad for a national fitness chain. The billboard featured a hungry space alien and the pitch "When they come, they'll eat the fat ones first."

For Wann, who is 5-foot-4 and weighs 270 pounds, fat jokes are decidedly unfunny. So she and other self-styled "fat advocates" picketed the offending gym, chanting slogans while conducting an aerobics class on the sidewalk outside.

"If that billboard had mentioned Asians or gays, it would have been offensive," said Wann, author of "FAT!SO?" a guide to being happy and healthy in any size. "But people figure they can pick on fat folks and get away with it."

Inspired by Wann's protest, the city of San Francisco has shown that it too takes fat jokes seriously. The Board of Supervisors voted last week to make it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their height or weight.

The law would make San Francisco the fourth jurisdiction in the country--along with Santa Cruz, Washington, D.C., and Michigan--to offer protections for people who face prejudice because they're too fat or skinny, too short or tall.

The ordinance, which goes to Mayor Willie Brown on Tuesday, would add two criteria to existing city codes that already protect against discrimination based on race, religion, color, ancestry, age, sex, disability and gender identity. The mayor has yet to take a stand on the issue.

The new law would ban bias in housing, employment and accommodations, which include hotels, bars, restaurants and movie theaters. It would exempt the city's police and fire departments as well as its professional sports teams, where jobs require specific physical abilities.

Advocates and city officials say the law proves that San Francisco continues to set the standard for the nation on the fair treatment of its residents.

"We're proud of what we did," said Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, who championed the ordinance. "This law will put people on notice: Discrimination of any kind won't be tolerated in our town."

But the law also delves into a gray area of whether cities can preempt state law and expand protection in housing and employment.

"If this ordinance is challenged, we're prepared to vigorously defend it," said March Slavin, a spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney's office.

Ammiano said he began researching the law after seeing how the local media trivialized coverage of Wann's protest last year. In June, the city's Human Rights Commission held hearings to determine the scope of such discrimination.

The panel heard from slender men who said they were denied jobs because prospective employers saw them as possibly suffering from AIDS or anorexia and skinny women demonized by assumptions that they suffered from eating disorders.

Short people testified about how they believed they were denied jobs because of their stature. And the panel heard from overweight people who said their size labeled them with such traits as laziness, low intelligence and gluttony.

One woman told the commission she was denied an apartment "because the landlord wanted somebody neat, and, judging her size, she assumed the woman was a slob," said Larry Brinkin of the Human Rights Commission. And a secretary described how one job interviewer pointed to a thin woman in the office and said, "How can we hire you? You don't look like her. We need a corporate look."

A 16-year-old girl told how she went to a doctor for a medical condition and instead received advice on how to lose weight and boost her self-esteem. A visit to a second doctor revealed that she had a medical problem unrelated to weight.

Carole Cullum, a self-employed attorney, described how her telephone interviews with a San Francisco law firm went well until she met the partners in person and received a chilly response, she says, because of her weight.

"It just felt very demeaning," she said. "It was a total denigration of everything that I am, the hard work I put into being an attorney."

Wann said that as a former freelance journalist she was turned down for health insurance because of her weight. And the insults came from home too.

"A boyfriend told me he was embarrassed to introduce me to his friends because of my weight. For a long time I couldn't even say the word 'fat'; it was too humiliating."

Brinkin said the law would allow people who believe they are being discriminated against to take their complaint to the Human Rights Commission, which would try to mediate the claim. If no compromise could be reached, the commission would still issue a report, which could be used in any lawsuit by the person claiming bias.

Companies working with the city could lose their contracts for up to five years and face fines if found guilty of discrimination. But the law has fewer teeth for companies without city contracts.

"If we can't mediate a compromise, it's up to the courts," Brinkin said.

Those suing on the basis of appearance-related bias in employment or housing may find it difficult, because the state Fair Employment and Housing Act precludes cities from setting their own discrimination standards in those areas, city officials warn.

But state officials said a lawsuit could set a precedent.

"It's definitely an unclear area," said Suzanne Ambrose, chief counsel for the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. "It's arguable. And who knows which way it would go?"

Ambrose said overweight people are protected under the disability provisions in state law, if they can prove their weight is the result of a physiological disorder.

But San Francisco city officials hope their new law provides another avenue to fight bias on the basis of height or weight.

"Everybody knows the law is imperfect and may not hold up in state court," Ammiano said. "But by just addressing this issue, by putting it in the arena for people to debate it, it will provide a learning curve to change painful stereotypes."

Santa Cruz officials say their 1993 anti-discrimination law protects against bias on the basis of height, weight or physical characteristics "not under your control, such as a limp or even a big nose."

Ricardo Alcaino, a city equal employment opportunity officer, said that complaints based on the law have been mediated and that none have gone to court. "People think it's important to offer equal protections to everyone," he said.

Brinkin said San Francisco's new law also will take aim at restaurants, theaters and other businesses.

"If heavy people can't fit into chairs in theaters or restaurants and there's nowhere for them to sit, we think they're being discriminated against," he said. "In those situations, we'll look for reasonable accommodations. We won't ask theaters to put in all big seats, just for a row of larger seats or a free-standing area for armless chairs."

Ammiano said the new law has inspired calls from as far away as Australia.

"There's been a lot of snide remarks," said the 145-pound former stand-up comic, who recently ran for mayor. "One fitness magazine ran a column where the guy wrote that he didn't know who Tom Ammiano was but he bet I was a fat guy with no sense of humor. Well, I'm none of the above. I'm just a guy who's sick of hearing fat jokes."

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