I’m sure that everyone is aware that our neighbors across the river are about to enact marriage equality; as I write this on Wednesday, the Maryland Senate is engaged in debate on SB116, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. All indications are that the bill will pass and be signed into law, and we look forward to congratulating Maryland on this victory for fairness and justice. This will only make our own Virginia look more backward and embarrassing, as is sadly consistent with our civil rights history.
If you look at Equality Maryland’s website, marriage equality is only one of their primary goals for this legislative session. The other is HB235, the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act. According to a February 2 article in Baltimore Gay Life, the bill, the same one introduced in 2010, “adds gender identity to anti-discrimination protections already granted on ‘the grounds of race, sex, age, color, creed, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation or disability.’ Discrimination would be ‘prohibited in the areas of employment, housing, credit and public accommodations.'” This would make it essentially identical to the Montgomery County ordinance passed unanimously in 2009. (That ordinance was unsuccessfully challenged by a local hate group originally organized to derail Montgomery County Public Schools’ medically-accurate human sexuality curriculum. You can find our extensive reporting on that debacle here.)
So far, so good, right? So why does every Maryland Transgender advocacy group appear to oppose this bill? The answer is that it’s not the same as last year’s bill. In the version that was actually introduced, the “public accommodations” language has been removed. What this means is that it would remain legal for any business to refuse service to a person who is transgender, suspected of being transgender, or even someone who fails to fit a gender stereotype to the satisfaction of the offender. Hotels, taxicabs, health clinics, restaurants – the list is endless, and this is exactly the kind of relentless “discrimination at every turn” that is documented in the recently released National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted by NGLTF and NCTE, the kind of discrimination that can make living one’s daily life nearly impossible.
It seems obvious to me that if the transgender community – the people who are supposed to get relief under the law – are opposed to this as written, it’s not written in a way that would actually provide that relief.
From what I can tell, Equality Maryland has determined that they don’t have the votes to pass this badly needed bill with the public accommodations language intact. Their plan is to pass HB235, and then at some point in the future introduce a stand-alone bill that would add that language back in. I think this is a very bad strategy, and here’s why:
Opposition to the Montgomery County ordinance was based entirely on a fabricated issue: The imaginary fear that “men dressed as women” would suddenly be able to enter women’s restrooms. This was their entire opposition campaign; it literally had no other content. This claim is vicious, it is stupid, and it has no basis in reality whatsoever. Nationwide, in the 13 states and 133 counties and cities that have such an ordinance prohibiting gender identity discrimination, there has never been a single instance of a man pretending to be transgender in order to gain entry to women’s facilities – unless you count the clumsy hoax that the Montgomery hate group tried to perpetrate. Yet opponents continue repeating this lie (but see the admission by Wendy Wright in this post), calling any legislation similar to HB235 a “bathroom bill.”
Splitting what is a simple civil rights bill into two separate parts only hands these amoral liars a weapon, a basis for claiming that their lies have some legitimacy, and would put the community ultimately responsible for lobbying for the stand-alone public accommodations bill in the position of explaining why this is a non-issue. In reality, for all the reasons stated, it is a non-issue, but stripping the language from the original bill falsely makes it appear to be legitimate in some way; otherwise, why was the language removed? That’s a ridiculous burden to place on trans people. The lie has to be debunked either way, and the way to do it is without equivocation or apology – and with both truth and mockery. What kind of person thinks about the bodies of the other people in a public bathroom, anyway?
Beyond the strategic weaknesses of this approach, it’s simply insulting to treat transgender people differently than any other minority group seeking civil rights. Can you imagine any other group being told “Ok, we’re willing to protect you from employment and housing discrimination, but we can’t really expect other people to share public accommodations with you. Maybe in a few years.” I don’t think so.
The consensus of the people this bill is supposed to help appears to be that if HB235 isn’t going to be a comprehensive civil rights bill, it would be best to rescind it for now. This is a case in which incrementalism just won’t work, and in which partial protection could turn out in the long run to be worse than no protection at all. I hope Equality Maryland starts listening to them before it’s too late.