Marking the eighth year in a row for the effort, LGBT-rights advocates testified Tuesday before the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in favor of a bill that would prohibit discrimination against people based on their gender identity or expression.
Just as supporters of the bill have made the annual trek to the Maryland State House in Annapolis since the first such bill was introduced in 2007, so too have the measure's opponents, once again out in force.
Because the committee makeup is largely unchanged from last year, the Tuesday's arguments echoed those made in years past, with supporters sharing their personal stories of discrimination and opponents raising a wide range of objections. Those objections range from what they call an ''unnatural'' concept of gender identity to hypothetical and fanciful horror scenarios – focusing largely on public accommodations like restrooms and locker rooms – that both sexually objectify transgender people and attempt to link them to common criminals, under the guise of ''protecting women and children.''
SB 212, sponsored by Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery Co.), who is gay, and co-sponsored by 24 other senators – meaning it has enough to pass the full Senate if ever brought to a floor vote – has the support of several progressive organizations, liberal-leaning religious groups and leaders, and the state's two largest LGBT organizations, Equality Maryland and Gender Rights Maryland. Among the groups opposing the measure are the Family Research Council, the Maryland Catholic Conference and Maryland Citizens for Responsible Government, a group that unsuccessfully tried to overturn Montgomery County's gender-identity nondiscrimination law after it passed in 2007.
Other backers of the bill include Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), and all three Democrats seeking their party's nomination for governor: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur (Montgomery Co.). O'Malley, Brown and Gansler all submitted written testimony in favor of the measure, while Mizeur testified in person before the committee.
Mizeur and several of the other witnesses in favor of SB 212 pointed out that four of the state's largest jurisdictions – Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties – have already adopted similar measures. But they also emphasized the importance of passing a statewide law to protect residents living in other Maryland jurisdictions.
''Protection against discrimination shouldn't depend on your zip code,'' Mizeur told the committee.
Susan Gerb, a transgender woman, testified that she always has to be aware of which county she's in because of the disparity in laws between various counties and the possibility that she could potentially be denied access to services or public accommodations due to her gender identity. And yet, she noted, while she doesn't have the same rights in Harford or Cecil counties as she does in Baltimore County, nearby states like Delaware and New Jersey have in place laws similar to SB 212 that provide protections for transgender individuals.
''This isn't right,'' Gerb said. ''You need to fix this.''
One of the more heated moments came when Angela Shepherd, of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, testified in favor of the bill, aiming her biting remarks at the same reticent lawmakers who defeated last year's nondiscrimination bill by a 6-5 vote.
''What are you afraid of?'' Shepherd asked pointedly. ''What is keeping you from passing this out of committee? It's already passed in other states, and in counties within our own state, without any negative ramifications. … I encourage you to not be afraid, and to continue to dismantle discrimination.''
The most passionate testimony against SB 212 came from Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank infamous among members of the LGBT community for its anti-LGBT views.
Sprigg's chief arguments focused on the bill's ''vagueness'' regarding definitions of ''gender identity or expression,'' and his claim that the bill increases government interference in the free-market economy by preventing employers from enforcing ''reasonable dress and grooming standards appropriate to one's biological gender.''
The bill does have a provision that allows employers to enforce a dress code or standards of grooming for employees, as long as such standards are related to job duties and are consistent with an employee's gender identity.
Sheila Wareham, another witness opposed to the bill, also claimed the bill was vague in how it defined gender identity. She claimed that the bill would open up a ''Pandora's box'' and could potentially allow men seeking to sexually assault or otherwise attack women access to women's restrooms and locker rooms by claiming that they are transgender. Wareham also took issue with the estimates supporters gave of the number of transgender people in the state, saying she personally would estimate it at no more than 150 to 300 people in total.
Elaine McDermott of Maryland Citizens for Responsible Government was one of several other witnesses offering testimony almost identical to Wareham's, claiming she was present ''to stand for women children and their safety.''
Both Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore Co.), who voted against the bill last year and has attempted in previous sessions to strip public accommodations out of the bill, and Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery Co.) pushed back against McDermott's claims. Raskin attacked her claims of such attacks occurring in Montgomery County by citing County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, a supporter of the law, who told Raskin he knows of no such assaults in the county.
When Brochin asked McDermott where she thought transgender people should be able to go to the bathroom, she responded: ''That's their problem. They chose this lifestyle. They chose something unusual and unnatural. I don't really understand it.''
The bill needs six votes to pass the 11-person committee and head to the Senate floor for a vote of the full chamber.