March 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Md. House debates trans rights bill

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Supporters of a Maryland bill to ban discrimination in employment and housing based on gender identity greatly outnumbered opponents testifying at a hearing Wednesday.

About 30 witnesses spoke in favor of the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act, compared to about 10 opponents, including one transgender activist who testified against the bill on grounds that it lacks language barring discrimination in public accommodations.

“Today, every Marylander should expect to work or live in comfortable housing without fear of losing a safe space because of who they are,” said Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties), the lead sponsor of the bill.

Pena-Melnyk and the other witnesses testified before the House of Delegates Committee on Health and Government Operations, which has jurisdiction over a bill that has died in the committee every year since 2007.

As a member of the committee who knows the sentiment of its members, Pena-Melnyk told the Blade last week that she decided to remove a public accommodations non-discrimination provision from the bill this year with the expectation that doing so would greatly improve the chances of the bill passing.

Nearly all the Maryland and national transgender advocates familiar with the bill, including those testifying at the Wednesday hearing, have said they reluctantly agreed with Pena-Melnyk’s decision to remove the public accommodations clause as a means of advancing the bill.

Lisa Mottet, director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s Transgender Civil Rights Project, pointed to a joint report released by the Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality showing what she called an alarming incidence of job and housing discrimination faced by transgender residents in Maryland.

The report found that 71 percent of trans residents in the state experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job and 18 percent lost their job “just because of who they are,” Mottet told the committee.

Mottet called the enactment of a bill banning employment and housing discrimination against transgender people “critical” to their safety and security.

Transgender resident Owen Smith, who works for Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT group coordinating the lobbying effort for the bill, gave a first-hand account of how employment discrimination resulted in him becoming homeless.

“I have been harassed and even assaulted at work because I am transgender,” he told the committee. “I was kicked out of my apartment for not being able to afford my monthly rent…I was forced to live out of my car,” he said, adding, “I am just one of the hundreds of transgender Marylanders in need of these protections.”

Several of the opponents who testified against the bill reiterated arguments made during the committee’s hearings on the bill in past years – that the bill would open the way for male pedophiles and rapists to target heterosexual women in women’s bathrooms or locker rooms at health clubs or other public places.

“This bill is a friend to males with ill intentions,” said Elaine McDermott, an official with Maryland Citizens for Responsible Government. “HB 235 [the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act] robs me of my right to safety and privacy.”

Supporters of the bill noted that the removal of the public accommodations provision means the bill no longer covers places like public bathrooms or gyms and health clubs. But backers of the bill have said that none of the potential problems cited by McDermott and other opponents have surfaced in the states and cities that have had transgender non-discrimination laws in place for 20 years or longer.

Mottet noted that Baltimore and Montgomery County have enacted transgender non-discrimination laws that include public accommodations protection and they, too, have not encountered any of the bathroom-related problems raised by opponents.

Other opponents testifying at Wednesday’s hearing in Annapolis cited religious grounds for their opposition to the bill, saying biblical teachings hold that God determines a person’s gender and anyone seeking to change their gender is violating “God’s law.”

This assessment was challenged by several religious leaders who testified in favor of the bill, including Fr. Joseph Palacios, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches at Georgetown University. Palacios noted that the bill specifically exempts religious institutions from being bound by the bill’s non-discrimination provisions in employment and housing.

He said Catholic teaching has long stood up against discrimination and persecution of minorities. Palacios, who is gay, and gay Catholic activists Phil Attey and Manley Calhoun, who also testified in support of the bill, came to the hearing bearing cross marks on their foreheads in connection with Ash Wednesday.

The committee was expected to vote on whether to approve the bill and send it to the floor of the full House of Delegates within the next week or two.

Committee members asked very few questions of the witnesses during the three-hour hearing. Morgan Meneses-Sheets, Equality Maryland’s executive director who also testified in favor of the bill, attributed the lack of questions to a familiarity with the bill among many of the committee members.

“We’ve had a number of these hearings before,” she said. “And many of us have visited and spoken with committee members on the bill and why we feel it’s crucial for protecting the rights of transgender Marylanders.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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