Gender identity bill poised for council approval

The County Council is poised to make gender identity a protected classification under county law.

All four council Democrats sponsoring the bill confirmed their support for it after a public hearing Monday, Nov. 21 that was filled with personal stories about transgender discrimination.

The hearing drew more than 50 supporters of the bill, which aims to prevent transgender and gender nonconforming persons from being discriminated against with regard to employment, housing and public accommodations. A handful of opponents also attended.

The sponsors make up a clear majority on the five-member council. All four said after the hearing that the testimony they heard affirmed the need for anti-discrimination legislation.

"The main issues to us were housing and employment," said councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. "If you can't get a job, you can't get housing — that comes back on the county."

Of the two dozen people who testified — 20 supporters and four opponents — 14 live outside of the county, which Watson attributed to the fact that Howard County would be only the third jurisdiction in the state, behind Montgomery County and Baltimore, to adopt such legislation.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball also noted that the issue has been "debated at the state level for the past few years," although state lawmakers have yet to approve any such proposal.

The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Dec. 5, and while it appears sure to pass, it is unclear whether councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, will support the measure.

"There was nothing that really convinced me one way or the other tonight," Fox said after the hearing.

Fox said one of his concerns about the bill is that some of the language is confusing. "It's very unclear what the various exceptions are to the public accommodations," he said.

The bill, which defines public accommodations as "any place which holds itself out as inviting the public to utilize its goods and services, whether or not for profit," exempts "accommodations that are distinctly private or personal."

Cathy Stefano, of Columbia, called the proposal "not a well-written bill. It's ambiguous. It leaves too many more questions than answers."

Stefano said the language on public accommodations could allow persons with male body parts to go into women's restrooms, fitting rooms and locker rooms — places she feels she has an "inherent right and expectation" to know only women will be entering.

But supporters of the bill argued that there have been no reports of transgender persons assaulting women.

"It doesn't matter which bathroom I use, I promise it's not a comfortable time for anybody," said Elkridge resident Sama Bellomo, who identifies as transgender. "But I'm not there to socialize."

'Knee-jerk reaction'

West Friendship resident David Bates said the council bill "may be a knee-jerk reaction" to the beating of a transgender woman at a Baltimore County McDonald's in April. (Bates is the husband of Republican Del. Gail Bates, but said he was voicing only his views.)

"I've heard of no other attacks in Howard County," he said. "Current laws already object to such behavior, no matter what the motivation."

Fox agreed the legislation may be an attempt to fix problems already addressed in other ways. He cited testimony by Silver Spring attorney Jonathon Shurberg noting that in the more than three years Montgomery County has had a similar law, no complaints have been filed with the county.

"Just as the person in Montgomery County testified, they haven't had people act on the legislation either way," Fox said.

Shurberg, who defended Montgomery County's gender identity anti-discrimination law against a referendum petition, argued in favor of the Howard County bill, which is modeled after the Montgomery County law.

"There were a lot of arguments put forward about what was going to happen if that bill passed … and quite frankly, none of it happened," Shurberg said. "People have learned that the law exists, particularly large employers have educated themselves."

Richard Espey, a Baltimore teacher representing the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said more than one in four lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being physically harassed at school because of how they present their gender.

"Transgender and gender nonconforming students are particularly vulnerable in schools," Espey said.

Four of the supporters who testified were Howard County parents of transgender youth.

"The thing which worries me now is my son's safety," North Laurel resident Jennifer Lewis said. "His birthday is in just six days. He'll be 15, and he (deserves) the same rights as every other human in Howard County."

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