The County Council is planning to make gender identity and expression a protected classification under county law, a move aimed at ensuring residents who identify themselves as transgender are given equal treatment when it comes to finding housing or employment.
"It's important for us to ensure a safe and comfortable environment for all of our residents," council Chairman Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, said. "In a world where there are people who because of their gender identity are being discriminated against, we need to take action."
The bill, which was pre-filed Thursday, Oct. 27 and is sponsored by the council's four Democrats — giving it a solid majority on the 5-member council — defines gender identity or expression as "a gender-related identity or appearance of an individual regardless of the individual's assigned sex at birth."
Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said members of the local chapter of the national advocacy group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays approached council members with the idea for the legislation.
"We felt that they made a convincing case that this population needed protection from discrimination," she said.
Having protection under the law allows transgender persons who are discriminated against to take legal recourse, if necessary, Ball said.
Heath Goisovich, co-chairperson of the local PFLAG advocacy committee, said the legislation is about "basic human rights." He said the group is not anticipating a lot of opposition to the bill.
The council will officially introduce the legislation at its legislative session Monday, Nov. 7. A public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 21 and a vote expected in early December.
'Troubling at best'
If the bill is passed, Howard County would become the third jurisdiction in Maryland, behind Montgomery County and Baltimore, to list gender identity as a protected classification.
While 15 states and Washington, D.C., also have protections with regards to gender identity, Maryland does not. Advocates hoping to change that formed a nonprofit earlier this year called Gender Rights Maryland. The group plans to lobby the General Assembly to pass gender identity anti-discrimination legislation in the 2012 legislative session, which begins in January.
"These are basic rights that everyone should enjoy — employment, housing and public accommodations," Gender Rights Maryland board Chairwoman Sharon Brackett said.
Brackett, a North Laurel resident, lauded Howard County for taking steps to "level the playing field" for transgender persons.
"As other civil rights movements have shown, it takes the impetus of government to move society along a little bit," she said. "I think having this legislation in Howard County will go a long way to giving the notion to people that it's not OK to discriminate against these folks anymore."
Three years ago, Brackett said she was married, a homeowner and a president of a company.
"All of those things have disappeared from me, and the only thing that happened is I changed gender," she said.
In addition to her own experience with discrimination because of her gender identity, Brackett said there are countless others with stories of injustice.
"You'll often find folks who lose their job," she said. "This is one of the few things in the world where you can actually be fired (because of) a medical condition. That's troubling at best."
The U.S. Census and other population tracking methods do not record whether a person is transgender or not, and even if they did, many transgender persons might not speak up, Brackett said.
"Because of the stigma and the social prejudice that exists, there are countless folks that are closeted," she said.
The council bill, Brackett said, should help lift some of the stigma and prejudice.
While there probably will be opposition, she said, "you're going to find support from places that are very unexpected, and there's going to be a lot of it, … I find Howard County to generally be very enlightened, very receptive."