Transgender people would be protected from discrimination in Baltimore County under a measure approved by the County Council Tuesday, making the county the fourth local government in Maryland to adopt such protections.
Council members did not add a heavily debated amendment proposed last week that would have specifically exempted bathrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms. Instead, the council left the bathroom issue open to interpretation in the legislation, amending the measure so that the protections do not apply to "distinctly private or personal" facilities.
The council approved the legislation 5-2, along party lines. Republicans Todd Huff of Lutherville and David Marks of Perry Hall voted against the measure. Marks had previously said he would support the bill.
"I want all Baltimore Countians to have equal access to those opportunities that make them more productive citizens, but upon further reflection, I don't know if there are already protections under the law," Marks said in a statement released after the vote. "I continue to have questions about the legislation, and would prefer for the state to act first on this issue."
Opponents of the bill have said it would lead to men dressed as women assaulting females in restrooms, though critics could not point to any specific incidents in places that have transgender anti-discrimination laws.
The vote followed a series of heated public meetings that started last month, when Catonsville Democrat Tom Quirk introduced the legislation. The bill will add both gender identity and sexual orientation to the county's existing anti-discrimination laws, which protect people in the workplace, housing, finance and public accommodations.
"Everyone deserves to be treated fairly," Quirk said before he and is colleagues voted. "This bill is a human rights bill, and I'm proud of Baltimore County tonight."
The council's approval comes nearly a year after the high-profile attack on Chrissy Lee Polis, a transgender woman who was viciously beaten last April when she tried to use the restroom at a Rosedale McDonald's.
Across the country, more than 160 counties and cities have transgender anti-discrimination laws, as do 16 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights advocacy organization.
In Maryland, Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Howard County have transgender protections.
The vague language added Tuesday about private facilities mirrors provisions in Montgomery and Howard counties' laws, council members said.
The transgender community is happy with the legislation, and does not oppose the amendment, said Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland.
"There's nothing in there that makes life any more difficult for transpeople," she said after the meeting.
Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, had raised concerns about bathrooms, but said he was pleased with the final version of the legislation.
"Our country has had a history of discrimination, and in my opinion, no one should be discriminated against," Olszewski said after the meeting.
Supporters of the bill wore purple to the meeting in a show of unity, and some thanked the council after the vote.
"I think what you did tonight was extremely courageous," said Mara Drummond, a transgender woman who lives in Catonsville. "I know it's kind of scary going out on a limb, but you did the right thing for people who are least protected in society."
The bill's opponents did not publicly address the council after the vote.
Allison Baird, a Catonsville resident who opposes the legislation, said Tuesday evening she was not surprised about the vote. Baird testified at a meeting last week, telling the council she feared that the measure would put women and girls at risk in public bathrooms.
"I kind of figured it would get passed," said Baird, who attended a rally at Quirk's office Monday to protest the bill. "I just hope and pray that nobody gets hurt."
Baird said opponents are already planning to organize a referendum drive to overturn the vote.
"I think the people should have a say, because obviously the councilmen are not listening to what the people want," she said.
Before voting on the bill, council members adopted an amendment to make it clear that religious institutions are exempt from the requirements.
Another amendment said that employers could still require workers to adhere to "grooming standards," though the business would still have to let the employee dress consistent with their gender identity.
Also Tuesday, the council tabled a proposal by Marks to have voters decide whether to enact term limits for council members. During his 2010 campaign, Marks had promised to seek term limits. His measure would have put a referendum on the ballot, asking county residents to limit members to three consecutive terms.
Council members also approved legislation by Marks, Quirk and Kenneth Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, to require the county to post preliminary plans for "planned unit developments" online. Such projects allow developers to get around certain zoning rules if their development offers some community benefit. The legislation is meant to improve transparency in the PUD process. Some county residents have criticized that process, saying communities don't get enough information on developers' plans.