Supporters and opponents were expected to turn out in force on March 9 for a hearing on a bill before a Maryland House of Delegates committee that calls for prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in employment and housing.
Officials with the statewide LGBT group Equality Maryland said they were hopeful that the hearing before the Health and Government Operations Committee would be the first step leading to the bill’s approval this year by the Maryland Legislature, marking a historic first for transgender rights.
But political insiders at the state capital in Annapolis said supporters were bracing for possible vocal opposition to the bill from some transgender activists, who have expressed anger over a decision by the bill’s lead sponsor to remove a provision banning discrimination in public accommodations, such as hotels, restaurants, private health clubs and gyms.
Some of the bill’s supporters worry that testimony against the bill from transgender people combined with the expected opposition from various religious leaders and social conservatives could be a devastating blow to the legislation.
Others, such as veteran transgender advocate Dana Beyer, a former candidate for a House of Delegates seat from Montgomery County, say other transgender activists such as she will voice support for the bill, countering those who oppose it.
Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties), a strong supporter of LGBT equality who has sponsored a transgender rights bill in the legislature since 2007, said she removed the public accommodations provision this year after determining it was the only way to obtain enough votes to pass the legislation.
“The bottom line is discrimination is not right,” she told the Blade Wednesday. “I have had this bill now for over three years and initially I introduced it with the section on public accommodations, which I believe in. “
Pena-Melnyk said she determined that the “political reality” required that she make changes in the bill to line up the votes needed to pass it. She said she understands the frustration of transgender Marylanders who wanted the public accommodations provision to remain in the bill.
“But I also feel it’s the right thing to do to give people protection under the law,” she said. “It’s better than nothing. A half a load is better than no load at all.”
Equality Maryland Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets said the group agrees with Pena-Melnyk’s decision to drop the public accommodations provision, with the intent of going back to the legislature next year to put public accommodations back in after the measure passes.
Noting that supporters were unable to get the bill out of committee during the past three years, Meneses-Sheets said most supporters believe an incremental strategy of advancing employment and housing protections for transgender people this year is a “far better” option than seeing the bill go down to defeat and having no protections at all.
“This helps folks right now with discrimination that they’re facing in jobs and housing,” she said. “This is a huge problem. And the housing protections are not only for housing you immediately think of like renting an apartment. In Maryland, housing is also interpreted to cover shelters.”
She noted that studies in the state show that as many as 12 percent of transgender Marylanders have experienced homelessness – sometimes due to employment discrimination that results in the loss of a job or housing discrimination resulting in the loss of an apartment.
Beyer said she, too, reluctantly has come out in support of the bill.
“The bottom line is we didn’t pass this in ‘07, we didn’t pass it in ‘08, ‘09 or last year,” she said. “So if we can get something done and we get a commitment from the community to come back next year, that’s the best we can do under the circumstances.”
Added Beyer: “It’s not ideal. We should have done it better before. But this is where we are today. People are suffering and it needs to get done.”
Beyer and others familiar with the Maryland Legislature said the decision to drop the public accommodations provision was driven by sensational claims by opponents that certain businesses like gyms and health clubs would be forced to allow male cross-dressers to use female locker rooms and bathrooms under the provision.
Those raising this concern warn that allowing male-to-female transgender people to use women’s bathroom facilities would jeopardize the safety of women, even though supporters of transgender rights legislation say such problems have not surfaced in any of the states, cities or towns that have adopted trans rights laws.
Opponents of the bill, led by some of the same anti-LGBT groups that oppose same-sex marriage, often have cited religious beliefs as grounds for denying non-discrimination protections for transgender people.
Some of the opposition to the bill from transgender activists has come from out-of-state bloggers who argue that passing a “bad” transgender law in Maryland would set a precedent that could hurt efforts to pass laws in other states.
Trans activist Monica Roberts of Texas wrote in Feb. 15 blog posting that gay and lesbian activists, led by Equality Maryland, were devoting most of their efforts to passing a same-sex marriage bill while failing to devote the attention needed to pass a stronger trans bill.
Closer to home, Sandy Rawls, a transgender activist who heads the group Trans-United, announced her opposition to the bill last month.
“Due to public outrage and disappointment of taking public accommodations out of Maryland House Bill 235, I … reviewed the facts with legal representation. As a result, Trans-United is pulling its support for the proposed legislation.”
A press conference scheduled for this week on the bill was postponed until March 9.