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The Baltimore Sun

Laurel delegate's fight for transgender anti-discrimination legislation to continue in 2012 session

Laurel Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk sponsored transgender anti-discrimination legislation in the 2011 General Assembly session, pushing the bill through the House of Delegates and all the way to the Senate floor, but her efforts weren't enough.

In the 2012 session, which starts in January, advocates are hoping to take legislation through the last hurdle it needs for passage. Though Peña-Melnyk will not be the lead sponsor of the bill, she said she will co-sponsor the House legislation.

"I'm still very supportive," she said. "I will still help tremendously."

Transgender rights advocates, like North Laurel resident Sharon Brackett, are hoping a bill passed by the Howard County Council this week making gender identity a protected classification under Howard's anti-discrimination law will aid in the statewide movement.

"I'm confident we'll be able to take this momentum forward to Annapolis," said Brackett, who serves as board chair of Gender Rights Maryland, a statewide advocacy group she helped form earlier this year after Peña-Melnyk's bill failed.

But unlike in Howard, where the legislation had majority support since the day it was introduced, state 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.

Howard is only the third jurisdiction in Maryland, behind Baltimore City and Montgomery County, to pass transgender anti-discrimination legislation. The council's action comes four years after Montgomery County's law was passed.

Meanwhile, years of statewide efforts to put similar discrimination protections into law have failed to produce results.

Peña-Melnyk's bill — which was co-sponsored by 55 other delegates, including her District 21 colleagues Ben Barnes and Barbara Frush — made the most strides.

It passed through the House March 25 on an 86-52 vote. In addition to the District 21 delegates, Laurel's District 23A Dels. James Hubbard and Geraldine Valentino-Smith, as well as District 13 Dels. Guy Guzzone, Frank Turner and Shane Pendergrass, voted in favor of the measure.

But in the waning days of the session, the Senate voted 27-20 April 6 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, District 13 Sen. Jim Robey, a Democrat who represents North Laurel, 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.

District 21 Sen. Jim Rosapepe voted against the move that sent Peña-Melnyk's bill to die in committee.

"I've been supportive of (the legislation), but there are quite a number of members who have concerns about it," he said. "I don't know who might change their positions this (upcoming) year."

Rosapepe said some of his colleagues' concerns have to do with public accommodations like bathrooms, "where people understandably have a legitimate expectation of privacy."

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."

Bill faces challenges

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 the bill needed to pass it.

Senate President Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, opposed the same-sex marriage bill, but helped move it along to the House because he knew a majority of senators wanted it passed, according to Baltimore Sun reports. Some saw Miller's frustration with the House inaction on the same-sex marriage bill as the reason why he ensured the gender identity bill would not pass.

Miller, according to the Sun reports, sent the gender identity bill to the Rules Committee upon its arrival in the Senate, which is where bills are sent if they are late or are sent to die. The bill was not late, and the Rules Committee sent the bill to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which approved the bill to go to the Senate floor. But by the time it got there, the leadership felt it was too late to take up the debate.

Miller, who could not be reached for comment for this article, expressed his views against the legislation in an interview that aired on Maryland Public Television's "State Circle" April 8.

"I personally believe it's anti-family, and so I am going to vote against it," he told MPT. "The problem is this: I have senators that are not going to hire people with male sexual organs who wear a dress to serve as a receptionist. So if they're not going to do it, if the senators and the house members themselves wouldn't hire a person in that category, how can we say to our constituents you've got to do this?"

Winning Miller's support is just one of the challenges advocates face in trying to get a bill to pass the Senate in 2012.

Another is not letting the bill be overshadowed by the same-sex marriage debate, which took up a lot of the General Assembly's time last session and is expected to be a hot topic again in 2012.

"It's hard to support one of those issues without supporting both," Turner said.

He said most state lawmakers have made up their minds on both same-sex marriage and transgender anti-discrimination, and he doesn't see a lot of shift in votes.

"It's not going to be that easy," Turner said.

Any shifts that do happen may depend on the details in the legislation, especially with regards to public accommodations.

"The problem has consistently been how we define transgender for the purposes of providing protections," said Jodi Kelber-Kaye, a gender specialist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The concern for me as a gender researcher, on top of someone who's politically supportive of this stuff, is the need for a space safe for women."

Kelber-Kaye said transgender anti-discrimination legislation has come up at the state level for many years. But with the progress Peña-Melnyk's bill made, she said, "it has a better shot than it ever did before."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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