As a bill to make gender identity a protected classification under Howard County's anti-discrimination law received its expected approval from the County Council this week, advocates are hoping state lawmakers will support a similar measure to be introduced in the 2012 General Assembly session.

But unlike in Howard, where the legislation had majority support since the day it was introduced, statewide legislation to protect transgender and gender nonconforming persons from discrimination faces more obstacles. Among those are the bill being overshadowed by the same-sex marriage debate, disagreements over how to address public accommodations and opposition from the Senate leadership.

Sharon Brackett, board chair of Gender Rights Maryland, said she believes those obstacles can be overcome and that Howard County's action helps break down some of the barriers.

"I'm confident we'll be able to take this momentum forward to Annapolis," she said after the Howard County Council approved the measure on Dec. 5 in a 4-1 vote.

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The bill was sponsored by the council's four Democrats, a sign it was sure to pass.

"It's important for us to stand up in this discussion about human rights, and I hope our leadership serves to encourage those around the state to stand up too," council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, said.

Howard is only the third jurisdiction in Maryland, behind Baltimore City and Montgomery County, to pass legislation protecting transgender persons from discrimination with regards to employment, housing and public accommodations. The council's action comes four years after Montgomery County's law was passed.

Bracket, a North Laurel resident, helped form Gender Rights Maryland earlier this year, after statewide gender identity anti-discrimination legislation failed to pass in the 2011 General Assembly session.

The House of Delegates passed a gender identity bill — introduced by Prince George's Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk and co-sponsored by 55 others, including Howard Dels. Liz Bobo, Guy Guzzone and Frank Turner, all Columbia Democrats — in a 86-52 vote March 25. But in the waning days of the session, the Senate on April 6 voted 27-20 to send the proposal back to committee, sealing its fate for that year.

"It came before the Senate late in the session, and I think there was a concern that there would be a filibuster on the floor," which would clog up other legislation that was awaiting final approval, Sen. Jim Robey, an Elkridge Democrat, explained.

Robey, one of the senators who voted to send the 2011 bill back to committee, said he supports the concept of anti-discrimination legislation but whether or not he will support a bill in 2012 will depend on how the proposal is crafted.

"The devil's in the details," he said.

Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Columbia Democrat who also supported sending the 2011 bill back to committee, did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did Sen. Allan Kittleman, a West Friendship Republican who opposed the move to send the bill back to committee.

Delegates holding their positions

Meanwhile, Howard's state delegates seemed locked into the positions they took earlier this year.

Bobo, Guzzone, Turner and Del. James Malone, an Arbutus Democrat, all said they would vote in favor of a gender identity bill, as they did in March. Dels. Steven DeBoy, an Arbutus Democrat, and Shane Pendergrass, a Columbia Democrat, who also supported the 2011 bill, did not return calls seeking comment.

Republican Dels. Gail Bates, of West Friendship, and Warren Miller, of Woodbine, voted against the 2011 bill and said they would again if a bill comes up for a House vote in 2012. But both acknowledge their votes won't matter.

"Typically once a bill passes the body, it's pretty rare for it to take a step back," Miller said, noting it's the senators who will decide the fate of the bill in 2012.

Reflecting on why the Senate did not pass the bill last year, Guzzone said: "It just sort of got wrapped up in a whole lot of emotion going on, particularly gay marriage."

A bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland had opposite success last year. It passed the Senate, but the House voted to send it back to committee after advocates realized they were a few votes shy of what they needed to pass it.