Transgender people and their advocates urged a panel of senators Tuesday to help make Maryland the 18th state to protect them from discrimination in housing, at work and in public places.
Lawmakers have considered expanding anti-discrimination laws to include transgender people every year since 2007. But advocates say changing attitudes and a groundswell of high-profile support make 2014's debate different.
Without state protection, they argue, transgender people can face difficulty getting credit cards and renting apartments. They can be forced to reveal their birth identity to employers or face getting fired, and businesses can choose not to serve them because of how they look, advocates said.
Four large Maryland jurisdictions, including Baltimore City, have laws barring discrimination against transgender people. But at least half of the state's population lives in areas that do not have such laws.
State law currently bars discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation but does not mention gender identity.
"If you were told in a bar in Cumberland, 'We don't serve your kind,' you have no recourse," Sen. Richard Madaleno, the lead sponsor, told the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "There's nothing you can do but probably be ashamed and belittled, and, I guess, walk out of the establishment," said Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Maryland lawmakers extended anti-discrimination protections to cover sexual orientation in 2001. Conservative religious groups, among others, have objected to expanding the law to cover transgender people.
The bill has also been held up in recent years by what Democrat Sen. Lisa Gladden of Baltimore, who supports it, on Tuesday called "the bathroom question."
Sen. James Brochin of Baltimore County, for instance, has voted against the bill in committee. He threw out the hypothetical example of a man claiming to be transgender waiting in the women's restroom to attack, something he thinks shouldn't be protected as a civil right.
"The employment and housing part is very clear to me as blatant discrimination," Brochin said Tuesday.
The measure has attracted support from gay and lesbian groups, high-profile Democrats, a group of educators and a labor union.
Gov. Martin O'Malley supports the bill, as do all three Democrats running for governor: Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County.
The measure has 25 co-sponsors, virtually assuring it has the required 24 votes to pass the Senate if it reaches the floor.
Thirteen-year-old Zane Walsh, who came with his mother to the hearing and considers himself male, told senators that he is "not a pervert lurking in the men's bathroom."
"I'm pretty much a normal kid," Zane said. "I love animals and rock music. I play drums and I sing. ... Maybe I love music so much because it doesn't judge based on appearance, like so many other people do."