Carroll County Times

Opponents petition to put transgender civil rights on November ballot

It's either the "Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014" or the "bathroom bill," depending on where the politician stands. And a petition circulating in Maryland aims to put the law with two very different names to a public vote.

In actuality, Senate Bill 212 - which passed the Maryland General Assembly this legislative session - prohibits discriminating against transgender persons in employment, housing, public accommodations and more.

A petition on, the same site that helped put the fate of same-sex marriage and other hot-button issues in Marylanders' hands, has begun. In order to put the law on the November ballot, the petition needs 18,579 valid names by May 31 to meet the Maryland Board of Elections' first deadline for signatures.

The issue is a civil rights matter, supporters say. But opponents argue it paves the way for sexual predators to abuse the measure, alleging this would allow easier access into the opposite sex's bathroom for nefarious purposes. Hence, the name "bathroom bill."

It's a "classic framing tussle," said David Karpf, George Washington University assistant professor of media and public affairs. The name compels the public to connect bathrooms with the law rather than civil rights.

"At a gut level, when we hear about a bill, the language that we call the bill helps affect whether people are distinctly opposed or in favor of it," Karpf said.

It's akin to the "death tax," he said. Republicans used this relabeling when referring to the estate tax, a tax on the right to transfer property after death.

"It was a lot easier to oppose the death tax than to oppose the estate tax," Karpf said, "because most people aren't taking the time to look into the details of the legislation."

Maryland conservative lawmakers aren't the only ones referring to legislation protecting transgender individuals as a "bathroom bill." A California law mandating schools respect student preferences in sports programs, bathrooms, locker rooms and more was coined the "co-ed bathroom bill."

But this is because bathrooms and locker rooms are the problematic part of the law, said Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington County and chairman. If it weren't for this component, Parrott wouldn't be pushing to put it to a public vote because "there wouldn't be a need," he said.

The words "bathroom," "restroom" or "locker room" are not mentioned in the law. Yet, it applies to all facilities located inside a place of public accommodation - such as a movie theater, restaurant or hotel.

That does include bathrooms in those places, which has some state lawmakers up in arms. Many conservative Carroll candidates indicated they oppose the measure and will sign the petition based on the claim that sexual predators could abuse the law.

"No one should feel threatened and uncomfortable," said Del. Justin Ready, a Republican candidate seeking re-election in District 5. "I think this bill leaves open a lot of room and latitude for someone who's not a woman to go into the women's restroom or locker room."

The focus on bathrooms and locker rooms is misguided because sexual assault and other such misdeeds are already illegal, said Jer Welter, managing attorney at FreeState Legal, an organization providing legal services to Maryland's LGBT, low-income community.

"This is really, I just think, a real scare tactic on the part of the opponents of the bill," he said. "And it's telling that these kind of outlandish myths or fantasies about what might happen are all that they've got to argue against this bill that is really just about basic fairness in all walks of public life."

Transgender people have been fired from their jobs, they've been discriminated against in restaurants, and this law simply protects them from facing this form of prejudice, Welter said.

The fear of sexual predators juxtaposed with civil rights for transgender persons is all part of the politics of the law, Karpf said.

"They're going to look for simple human stories that can communicate what this bill is about," he said.

And whichever side does a better job of presenting its story will likely have the outcome swing in its favor, Karpf said.

Yet, extending civil rights to transgender persons isn't unprecedented. At least 17 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. More than 140 jurisdictions - including Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City - have done the same, the bill's fiscal and policy note states.

And Welter said he believes opponents have an uphill climb to put the issue on the ballot.

A March Goucher Poll found that 71 percent of state residents support including gender identity in the state's anti-discrimination laws. Nearly 20 percent oppose this extension of civil rights, and almost 8 percent surveyed responded they didn't know.

The bill passed the House of Delegates 82 to 57 and the Senate 32 to 15. But signing the petition allows the public to weigh in, said Del. Warren Miller, R-District 9A representative and candidate.

"Any time we can give the voters an opportunity to have a say, I think it's a good thing," Miller said, adding that he opposes the law.

And opponents are relying on grassroots efforts in an attempt to put the matter to the voters, according to Parrott. He's unsure how many Marylanders have signed the petition thus far, but there's an effort underway to collect as many signatures as possible by May 31.

The law's opponents are bringing the petitions to Towson Town Center and other events around the state with the goal of collecting 25,000 names by the end of this month. That way, they'll have leeway to make the 18,579 requirement in case some names aren't valid.

"That's a lot of signatures in a short amount of time," Parrott said. "It's going to take a lot of work. I'm optimistic that we're going to make it, but I don't know that right now."