MD’s flawed transgender anti-discrimination bill

On Wednesday, March 9th, a Maryland House of Delegates committee is scheduled to have a hearing on a trans anti-discrimination bill that is stirring up controversy. House Bill 235 would ban discrimination based on gender identity in housing and employment. Unlike versions of this bill introduced over the past few years (none of which passed, of course) HB 235 does not include protections against discrimination in public accommodations.

What exactly is a place of “public accommodation” and why is this a big deal? It includes places of lodging like hotels and motels, restaurants and bars, entertainment venues, places for public gathering and shopping, transportation stations, stores, schools, gyms, shelters… I could go on. Basically, this is about whether or not trans folks can be barred from participation in the public sphere, kept out of places legally open to everyone else.

Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk said she removed the public accommodations language in an attempt to move the bill forward, since advocates have had no success in past years. She told the Washington Blade, “It’s better than nothing. A half a load is better than no load at all.” Equality Maryland (which is much more focused on same-sex marriage) supports this approach, with the stated goal of adding in public accommodations next year.

Why take out the public accommodation language? Because it’s consistently used to bring up people’s fears about transgender folks in bathrooms. A completely unrealistic, unfounded, backwards concern (one, I should note, that we’ve addressed plenty of times in this community and no longer tolerate).

I get it, but I don’t buy it. The bathroom argument has been used to take down the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by talking about bathrooms in the work place. The argument has no basis in fact, so I don’t think it matters very much that the easiest way to bring it up has been removed – it always comes up anyway.

Further, I have come to believe that asking for less in politics does not lead to winning more. As I argued in regards to abortion and health care reform, when we cede ground from the start we are opening up the door to lose even more ground, and making it incredibly difficult to continue pushing forward for gains we’ve essentially given up on. When we demand everything we want from legislation we may not get it all, but we are defining the terms of the debate. With HB 235, the ground has already been ceded.

While some in the trans community have criticized MD State Senator Rich Madaleno for supporting HB 235, as I see it he’s the only one advocating for a real anti-discrimination bill, saying in a statement he supports passing the bill with an amendment to add public accommodations. Though I imagine it will be damn hard to add this amendment since it’s already been publicly given up on.

Maryland desperately needs trans anti-discrimination legislation. Just last month Tyra Trent, a transgender woman, was brutally murdered in the state. I think supporters of this half measure bill mean well and are attempting to be pragmatic in the same manner as many other political insiders on the left. But I fear we’re about to see a weakened bill fall to the same old arguments, with the only real outcome being that champions of trans rights now have even less ground to stand on.

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