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Gender identity protected [Editorial]

If this coming November Maryland Republicans look back at the election results and wonder what went wrong, they may want to start with Thursday's vote by the House of Delegates in which every member of their party in attendance voted against a bill to ban discrimination against transgender individuals in employment, housing and public accommodations.

That's not a shock, but it's still a disappointment. It appears GOP delegates in the Free State are taking a cue from their right-wing peers in the U.S. House of Representatives and opposing equal accommodations for a group often targeted for violence and discrimination. Worse, however, has been the rhetoric flowing from these same opponents that has mocked the transgender and sought to play on the public's worst fears of a particularly misunderstood group.

Take, for instance, Del. Neil C. Parrott of Washington County who was quick to label the proposal the "Bathroom Bill" to stir up fears of men dressing up as women in order to molest innocent young girls or senior citizens in the local lavatory. We kid you not. He's been circulating an online petition against the bill featuring the image of a cartoon man (the kind you see on bathroom doors) peering over a stall to eye a cartoon woman.

Nevermind that the bill isn't about enabling such criminal behavior anymore than the sellers of men's trench coats are trying to accommodate flashers. Similar laws have been enacted in 17 other states and the District of Columbia without outbreaks of bathroom peeping toms. The law is unlikely to make much difference to potential molesters one way or the other as sexual assault and similar misconduct was illegal then and it's still illegal now.

No, what's really appalling is that opponents would reduce civil rights to bathroom invasion and make the victims look like aggressors. The argument purposefully ignores the real issue of transgender people being refused jobs or apartments or even getting beat up for using a bathroom. That's what happened to 22-year-old Chrissy Lee Polis at a Rosedale McDonald's, an incident that was captured on a video that received national attention several years ago and it caused Baltimore County to pass an anti-discrimination law as have Baltimore City and Howard and Montgomery counties.

Unfortunately, Delegate Parrott is hardly alone. Del. Kathy Afzali, a Frederick Republican, warned in a recent letter to constituents that the bill would "normalize abnormal behavior."

"Like the majority of Marylanders, I share the view that this redefinition [of gender] rejects our society's understanding of human nature. So ladies if you happen to see a guy in a dress in the restaurant bathroom, you'll know the bill passed and that I voted no," she wrote.

But exactly whose nature — the transgender individual or the self-righteous politician — is rejected by Marylanders is open to question. A recent public opinion survey conducted by the politics center at Goucher College found 71 percent support adding gender identity to Maryland's anti-discrimination laws. And since Maryland was one of the first states in the nation where a majority of voters supported same-sex marriage (which Delegate Afzali opposed, incidentally) two years ago, it's safe to assume they would rise in support of the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, too.

All of which gives the impression that Republicans in Annapolis followed a dated playbook from the George W. Bush administration and failed to recognize that times have changed. The possibility that people sincerely identify with a gender to which they were not born seems to have not only stumped opponents but spurred much fear and loathing — not unlike how so many viewed same-sex marriage right before it was approved by voters by a wide margin. Thursday's debate on the House floor focused almost entirely on imagined hypothetical bathroom horrors while the real victims, the 30,000 transgender people who live in this state who face real discrimination on a daily basis, were seen only as a potential threat by the bill's opponents.

Not every Republican in the State House has endorsed the discriminatory status quo, of course. When the Senate approved the bill on March 4, Howard County Republican Sen. Allan Kittleman spoke out in support pointing out that his own county's experience has been only positive. "I know people think these terrible things are happening, when they really aren't," said his party's lone voice of reason.

Too bad Senator Kittleman had so little company on his side of the aisle. Still, the legislation won by a large majority on the strength of Democratic votes, 32-15 in the Senate and 82-57 in the House. And while there were a handful of Democrats in both chambers who voted against it, too, there were many more like Del. Rudolph C. Caine, an African-American representing the conservative Lower Eastern Shore, who proudly endorsed the civil rights bill. Now that the measure has passed and Gov. Martin O'Malley will sign it into law, Republicans will have accomplished only this — a public demonstration that they are too right-wing on social issues to be trusted for statewide office no matter their views on matters of the pocketbook.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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