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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Legislature's Trans-gression

The General Assembly shamefully failed to act on transgender protections.

By Steve Charing

The just concluded 2009 Maryland General Assembly grappled with a slew of thorny issues. Lawmakers faced contentious debates on such matters as the death penalty, saving the Preakness, public utilities, the state’s precarious fiscal situation and many more. They even managed to squeeze in the passage of speed cameras "near" school zones and construction sites during the 90-day legislative session.

But a bill to outlaw discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of gender identity and expression never saw the light of day. As was the case last year, it died in committee.

Despite placing a high priority on this important piece of legislation by Equality Maryland—the state’s principal LGBT advocacy organization—and the multi-faceted strategy it employed to make this bill advance and succeed, it appeared that it was doomed from the outset.

Equality Maryland laid much of the blame for the failure of the measure on Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery County), the liberal chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for not allowing the bill to come up for a vote when he had the power to do so.

Does Sen. Frosh truly believe that transgendered individuals should be discriminated against? I doubt it. Moreover, a transgender anti-discrimination bill had passed in his own Montgomery County.

But the way Senate politics are played, legislators who have aspirations for rising to leadership positions generally have to tow the line. And when the current Senate president, Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (pictured)—the longest serving leader of a state legislature in the nation and hence one of the true powerful forces—does not want a bill to come to the floor for a vote, a would-be successor not only must tow the line, he most certainly cannot cross it.

Political observers theorized that Brian Frosh may have eschewed an up-and-down vote in committee for that very reason.

People are still uncomfortable about transgendered individuals. Accordingly, many politicians are as well. Trans-issues are not as easy to explain to folks in the way that being gay or lesbian can be explained, although there remains an incredible amount of education needed on that front.

The arguments surrounding transgender protections render the issue contentious, and according to Dan Furmansky, former Equality Maryland executive director who was a legislative consultant during the session, "Key Democratic leaders view it as a political issue too hot to handle rather than an opportunity to address pervasive bias against a group of individuals who truly need anti-discrimination protections."

To be sure, Republican committee members tried to attach dubious amendments to the bill and Sen. Frosh claimed he was waiting for the House of Delegates to act first. Furthermore, "public accommodations" was stripped from the original bill to make it more palatable to waffling legislators. But this was pure gamesmanship, and the never-ending pursuit of political cover in the absence of courage won out at the final bell.

In my interview with Dan Furmansky, he noted that "Sen. President Miller is generally known as Democratic Party-power focused, not issue focused… He is concerned about what is politically palatable for the Democratic Party…I think [pro-LGBT] advancements are possible during his tenure if he believes it is ‘time.’"

But when will that be, if at all?

The time was clearly not now, as Mike Miller did not want to bring this issue for a vote primarily because of the controversial nature of it. And Brian Frosh complied.

The upshot of this political cowardice is that a transgendered person can be fired from his or her job simply because of who the person is even though it has nothing to do with work performance. A transgendered person can be kicked out of his or her apartment for simply being trans. Alas, discrimination is still alive and well in the free state of Maryland.

Many transgendered people struggle in trying to reconcile their mind with their birth body. They are more at risk for homelessness, poverty, bullying, suicide, victims of violence and other forms of discrimination than the remainder of the LGBTcommunity.

Yet I believe the elected officials overestimated the backlash if such a measure passed. Governor Martin O’Malley would have likely signed the bill into law as he sent letters of support to both committees involved and signed a similar law as Mayor of Baltimore.

In 2009, I’m banking on the fact that less and less people are inclined to allow discrimination to take hold in this very blue state. More grassroots efforts are required, though, to educate a public not familiar with trans-issues and ultimately the politicians will follow.

And to avoid yet another trans-gression, more sympathetic candidates should be sought to run against our opponents.

1 comment:

Dana LaRocca said...

Thanks Steve.

It is a sad situation when the transgendered have more rights in Cuba than in the "Free State."