Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard weighs gender identity bill after statewide law fails

After suffering a defeat in the state legislature, advocates pushing to bar discrimination against transgender people are looking to build protection into local laws — spurred on by a high-profile attack on a woman at a Baltimore County McDonald's last spring.

On Monday, Howard County will become the latest local government to take up a bill that would add gender identity and expression to the county's anti-discrimination laws. The measure, which has the support of a majority of the County Council, would make Howard the third local government in Maryland to adopt such a measure.

"The state hasn't done the job," said Sharon Brackett, board chair of Gender Rights Maryland, which helped an organization in Howard craft local legislation. If there was a statewide law there wouldn't be a need in Howard, she said.

Montgomery County and Baltimore had such protections in place before the April attack on Chrissy Lee Polis, a transgender woman who had attempted to use the women's restroom at a Rosedale McDonald's. Howard is the first area locality to consider action since that attack, which was filmed and posted on YouTube, drawing millions of views worldwide.

Baltimore County and some other local governments say they are waiting for the General Assembly to take action. Advocates say they are working to gather support for a statewide bill, but are also looking to put local measures in place where they can.

"It's important that everyone is able to live in a safe environment without fear of discrimination," said Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat. Four of the five council members are cosponsors of the measure, which would bar discrimination in housing, employment, law enforcement practices and public accommodations in the county.

Councilman Greg Fox, the lone Republican on the panel, said he is reserving judgment on the proposal. There is a public hearing scheduled for Monday.

"I have concerns about it," he said, but added, "I will listen to the testimony."

Members of the Columbia-based group, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — also known as PFLAG — approached members of the council in July to get the legislation on the council agenda.

"We were very disappointed when the legislation didn't pass on the state level last year," said Catherine Hyde, transgender network coordinator for PFLAG. Hyde has a transgender daughter who was born a male.

While Howard officials look to adopt local legislation to protect gender identity, other counties continue to wait for the state to broach the issue.

Dave Abrams, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, said the administration has no plans to address the issue through local legislation.

"I believe that the county's rules match the state law," said Abrams. "If the state law changes, we will follow the state law."

In Baltimore County, the Human Relations Commission, which enforces the county's anti-discrimination law, has not explored the issue, said county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler. "It just hasn't come up on their agenda," she said.

Fifteen states, the District of Columbia, and more than 140 municipalities have gender identity protection laws, Brackett said. Such measures have been controversial when they've come before other governments, as well as in Annapolis.

Although the bill in Montgomery County was passed unanimously, a group of petitioners attempted to put the measure before voter referendum. The law protects transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and taxi and cable service.

Opponents gathered 32,000 signatures to put the measure to voter referendum, but Maryland's highest court removed the measure from the ballot, ruling that opponents had not collected enough signatures. The Montgomery County bill took effect in 2008; Baltimore's measure has been in place since 2002.

Opponents to the Montgomery County law had raised concerns over public restrooms, which would also be affected under the measure being proposed in Howard.

Greg Quinlan, the Executive Director of Equality and Justice for All, called Howard's proposal "bad public policy."

He said his group, which is based in Arlington, Va. and fights such laws across the country, plans to send representatives to the public hearing Monday.

He argued that the legislation would violate the civil rights of others by allowing transgender individuals to use the restroom of people of the opposite sex.

"It's giving them a special rights. It's not a civil right," he said.

For Laurel residents Brian and Maria Singer, who plan to testify at the hearing, the bill means basic rights for their 6-year-old daughter, Jackie.

Jackie Singer was born a boy and named Jack, but the elementary school student wears dresses, loves Barbie dolls, and thinks of herself as a girl. Her doctor has identified her has having a gender identity disorder.

"Right now, it doesn't affect us too much," said Brian Singer. "It's easy to protect Jackie because she is only six." Still, he said, she has already faced bullies who don't understand why a boy would want to dress as a girl — and she sometimes wonders why she is not accepted in the girls lavatory at school.

He says the legislation in Howard will become increasingly important as Jackie grows up.

Referring to the attack on Polis, he said, "I don't want that to happen to my daughter."

The incident at the Rosedale McDonald's, captured on a restaurant employee's cellphone, pushed discrimination of transgender people into the forefront of public debate. One of the teens involved in the altercation has since pleaded guilty in Baltimore County Circuit Court to one count of first-degree assault and one hate crime count.

The beating came shortly after the failure of a state law that would have provided some protections for transgender individuals in Maryland. The final version of the bill didn't include public accommodation protections that could protect transgender people from being discriminated against in restaurants and public places; Howard's bill contains those provisions.

The statewide bill had made it further than in past years, passing the House of Delegates. But it failed to earn enough support on the Senate floor.

Under the bill in Howard, transgender individuals would receive the same protections that aim to prevent discrimination based on race, religion or political beliefs.

"It's about basic human rights, being treated fairly in public places," said Heath Goisovich, a PFLAG co-chair of the advocacy committee.

Brackett said there are a number of transgender individuals in every community. Proponents on Monday will wear purple in a show of support.

"You probably know a transgender person but you don't even know it," she said.