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General Assembly Passes Transgender Protections

Christopher Connelly/WYPR

  A bill that bans discrimination against people who are transgender cleared the General Assembly on Thursday. It adds gender identity to a list of protected categories like race, sex and religion, and bans discrimination based on gender identity in credit, housing, jobs and public accommodations. And it’s public accommodations that concerned most Republicans and some Democrats and fueled much of the three-hour floor debate.

“Bathrooms, locker rooms, shower rooms – places where people – especially women – have an expectation that men will not be in there,” House Minority Whip Kathy Szaliga said, are places where women are vulnerable. She said she’s men could dress as women and assault girls and women in bathrooms and use the non-discrimination provision as a legal cover.

But Del. Peña-Melnyk – who responded to many proposed amendments as the representative of the House Government Oversight Committee, which passed the bill -- said these concern’s unwarranted.

“Those men who committed those crimes were charged because there are existing laws when people violate laws. This bill does not change that and none of those people were transgender,” she said.

Delegate Tony O’Donnell offered an amendment he said would resolve the issue by adding a clause to say a person can’t use gender identity as a shield to do something illegal in the bathroom “or for the furtherance of a prurient interest.” O’Donnell proposed it as an out for Republicans who wanted to vote for the bill – it would answer a question many of their constituents raised.

More amendments regarding bathrooms followed, all from Republicans and all failed to pass muster. The reason, Peña-Melnyk said repeatedly, the amendments were not needed, redundant, or changed the intent of the law.

But that did not stop a fierce debate and several off-color jokes about bathrooms and Adam’s apples.

“In my eight years in this body I have never been more offended or disappointed,” Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, told her colleagues that their false equation of transgender rights and deviance was a smokescreen for hate and said transgender people were vulnerable to losing a job or housing, and are actually the people who were vulnerable to being attacked for using public restrooms, and not the aggressors.

“Do you actually think that somebody who was born in a body that doesn’t along with their gender identity, and are going through the suffering and hate that is heaped upon them for presenting who they really are, are going to go into a bathroom and expose themselves them to our precious women and children?” she asked.

After Mizeur’s floor speech, the tone of the debate changed. No more amendments were accepted. Del. Mike McDermott, R-Eastern Shore, said that forcing a vote on a bill that is not amended to satisfy these concerns was foolhardy.

“I think we’re tone deaf to the changes that are need to be made to the bill – and I think we are a confused state, voting on a confused bill, on behalf and in support of some very confused people.”

More important than the bathrooms debate for Del. Emmett Burns is the question of accepting transgender identities in the first place. The reverend from Baltimore County said he did not hate transgender people, but quoted scripture to support his opposition to the bill.

“’There is a way that unto a man seemeth right but in the end leads to destruction.’ And what we are doing here is leading the wrong way,” Burns said. “My constituents think we have lost our minds down here by passing bills that change or try to change nature.”

Del. Rudolf Cane, D-Eastern Shore, also looked to history. He said this debate over the right to public accommodations reminds him of Maryland’s Jim Crow past – a past he recalled by telling delegates that he knew the back roads of Annapolis because his family travelled them on the way to visit his sister, in Washington. He said the family had to food they’d prepared and eat at picnic tables because they wouldn’t be allowed to eat at a restaurant without causing a scene.

Transgender people, Cane said, want nothing more than to be un-accosted in public spaces. “We need to support equal accommodations so that people can live a decent life – not in fear, but live it like we live it and in joy.”

“This is a classically American debate,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery County. He said a lawmaker’s jobs is to balance rights and responsibilities. He says being an American means he has the right to dislike anybody – but “I cannot fail to give you a room, fail to give you a job, fail to give you an accommodation because I don’t like the way that you were born.”

In the end, 87 delegates voted for the bill. Gov. Martin O’Malley sent out a statement applauding the bill as “yet another victory for inclusion and openness” in Maryland, and said he looks forward to signing it.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.