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Trans Rights Top Maryland Activists’ ’’To-Do’’ List

by John Riley
Wednesday Jan 23, 2013

If the third time wasn't quite the charm, maybe the seventh time will be, with some of Maryland's LGBT community leaders hopeful that 2013 will be the year a gender-identity nondiscrimination bill finally passes the General Assembly. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), a longtime LGBT ally, is expected to sign such a measure - prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression in housing, employment and credit - should it pass the General Assembly.

Just two months after Marylanders voted to uphold the law granting same-sex couples access to state marriage licenses, LGBT-equality advocates now see few roadblocks stopping their progress in the General Assembly, which started its 90-day 2013 session Jan. 9.

Carrie Evans, executive director Equality Maryland, the state's primary LGBT-rights organization, says Maryland Senate President Thomas V. ''Mike'' Miller (D-Calvert, Prince George's counties) seems open to allowing the gender-identity bill, introduced in various forms since 2007, to move forward in the upper chamber.

A similar measure, HB 235, passed the House of Delegates in 2011 by an 86-52 vote before being voted back to committee by the Senate, effectively killing it.

Evans expects a hearing on the bill within 30 days, as she's hoping the measure will pass the Senate before the upper chamber begins debating other issues such as a proposed assault-weapons ban, repeal of the death penalty and budget issues.

''We don't want to get lost in the mix,'' says Evans.

Equality Maryland is also a member of the Coalition for Trans Equality. Other groups involved in this effort include Baltimore Black Pride, Baltimore Trans Men, the Maryland Black Family Alliance, Gender Empowerment Maryland (GEM), Free State Maryland, CASA of Maryland, Progressive Maryland several unions.

In a Jan. 1 press release announcing the formation of the coalition, Evans, speaking on behalf of her organization, touted the ability of the coalition to share resources and collaborate with like-minded allies, something she said was successful in Maryland's marriage equality fight.

''Equality Maryland embraces doing this vital work in a coalition that has trans individuals at the center of decision making,'' Evans said in the statement. ''We witnessed the power of a coalition winning and preserving marriage equality and we are confident this model will succeed for trans equality.''

In the meantime, she says Equality Maryland also must spend coming months ensuring the new marriage-equality law is fully implemented in all areas impacted by marriage, such as insurance, tax benefits and inheritance rights. To that end, the group has established a working group that includes the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), several local attorneys and Lambda Legal.

Dr. Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, which has taken the lead on the gender identity bill, says she is optimistic about the bill's chances in 2013.

''It looks like after six long years in the desert, this is the year we're finally going to pass it,'' says Beyer.

Beyer says she's confident that supporters of the gender-identity bill have the votes to pass the measure in the upper chamber, traditionally a more conservative body than the House of Delegates.

There's been a nationwide cultural change regarding LGBT equality, Beyer says, recalling Vice President Joe Biden recent characterization of transgender equality as ''the civil rights issue of our time.'' She also points out that courts have found transgender people are protected under the 14th Amendment, that the Department of Education has ruled that Title IX of the Education Code prohibits harassment based on gender identity, and that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled that gender-identity discrimination is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

''We're no longer begging for our rights,'' says Beyer. ''The world has changed. People are no longer afraid of their shadows'' when it comes to voting for laws protecting the transgender community.

''The No. 1 symbol of how things have changed is that Sen. Miller is not afraid that gender identity or the death-penalty repeal will end up on the ballot in 2014, an election year,'' Beyer says.

Even if such a law faced a referendum, she reasons, it would likely be upheld as transgender rights have typically outperformed marriage equality in private polling. In addition, LGBT opponents failed, both in 2008 in Montgomery County and in 2012 in Baltimore County, to gather sufficient signatures to repeal the gender-identity nondiscrimination laws passed by their respective county councils. Those laws and others like them, Beyer notes, already provide gender-identity protections to half the state's residents. Currently, discrimination in employment, housing and credit based on gender identity or expression is prohibited in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County and Montgomery County, which together hold about 47 percent of the state's population.

It's that disparate impact and ''patchwork'' of laws - effectively creating two classes of rights for transgender Marylanders based on where they live - that should be the impetus for state legislators to finish the job started by the counties, Beyer insists.

''Our goal is to expedite this by early February in [the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee], with a vote later,'' Beyer says. ''Once they pass this, the opposition's rage will fade away, as it always does.''

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