Republican Delegate Leads Launch of Repeal Referendum

Using Del. Neil Parrott's site, MDPetitions.com, opponents are collecting petition signatures to overturn Maryland's transgender rights bill

MDPetitions.com, the conservative political site that is the brainchild of Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington Co.) and was formed to make it easier to collect signatures to overturn various pieces of legislation that had been passed by the Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly, announced on Tuesday that they would begin asking Maryland residents to sign a petition that seeks to overturn or nullify a transgender-rights bill that was approved by the General Assembly in March.

Neil C. Parrot

Neil C. Parrot (R) from Maryland’s District 2B, Washington Co.

The bill, SB 212, also known as The Fairness for All Marylanders Act, prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations based on a person’s gender identity or expression. The bill extends provisions that already exist on the county or city level in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, Montgomery County and the city of Hyattsville, in Prince George’s County. The bill passed the Senate, 32-15, and the House of Delegates, 82-57, on a largely party-line vote, with Sen. Allan Kittleman (R-Howard, Carroll counties) casting the sole Republican vote in favor. Even Del. Robert Costa (R-Anne Arundel Co.), despite originally signing on as a cosponsor of the legislation, voted against the bill, both in committee and during final passage.

Just days after the bill passed the House of Delegates, MDPetitions.com posted a survey asking visitors to the site whether they support the “bathroom bill,” the pejorative nickname by which opponents, mostly General Assembly Republicans, refer to SB 212; whether they would sign or distribute petitions to attempt to get the law placed on the ballot; and whether they would volunteer or donate money or resources to assist the repeal campaign.

In order to petition the measure to the ballot, opponents must collect 55,736 valid signatures from registered voters across the state. No more than half of all signatures can be from one county or from Baltimore City. One-third of all signatures, or 18,579 must be submitted to the Secretary of State by May 31, with the remaining 37,157 submitted by June 30.

On its website, MDPetitions.com refers to SB 212 as the “bathroom bill” multiple times, and particularly focuses on provisions of the bill that require places like locker rooms or changing facilities to provide “equivalent private space” for transgender people who wish to use facilities that complies with their “consistent and uniform assertion” of their gender identity – language proposed by Senate Republicans in an amendment that was eventually adopted by the full committee and appeared in the final version of the bill, which was then approved by both chambers of the General Assembly.

But MDPetitions.com ignores the Senate amendment language, claiming: “The most egregious part of this bill will require businesses to open up their public facilities (bathrooms, saunas, shower rooms, locker rooms, etc.) so that men can use the ladies’ room and women can use the men’s room. They can use the wrong facilities simply based on them saying that at the time they ‘sincerely held as part of [their] core identity’ that they were the opposite sex.” MDPetitions.com also ignores the fact that the bill does not apply to single-stall facilities – in fact, some businesses may already have unisex single-stall bathrooms available for use by customers on their premises – or that similar laws have been passed in the neighboring District of Columbia and 17 other states.

According to the website, “Each person is born with a specific sex that, regardless of personal, emotional, or psychological feelings to the contrary, is maintained throughout their lives. There is a reason that bathrooms are separated, and should continue to be. Men and women are physically different in ways that are traditionally held as private. Most humans neither want to reveal nor see intimate aspects of strangers of the opposite sex.”

Although a Goucher College poll shows that more than 70 percent of Maryland residents support including gender identity in the state’s nondiscrimination laws, opponents have seized upon the idea that women and girls will somehow have their safety threatened in bathrooms or locker rooms, as opponents make gross generalizations that attempt to equate transgender people with criminal sex offenders, who are mostly heterosexual cisgender men.  

“While this bill tries to provide special rights to transgendered (sic) individuals, it endangers the rights of parents and our families for the sake of those who cannot accept the way they were created – or simply act that way so they can prey on easy targets,” MDPetitions.com says in its description of SB 212.

The Maryland Coalition for Transgender Equality, the coalition of more than 50 religious, political, social-justice and community groups in support of transgender rights that took one of the lead roles in promoting and lobbying on behalf of SB 212, previously announced the launch of the “Stand for Fairness” campaign, which seeks to educate Marylanders about what the bill says and its impact. The coalition issued a statement blasting the attempt to petition the transgender rights bill onto the November ballot.

“Delegate Parrott will have an uphill battle to convince voters to repeal fairness for all Marylanders,” Keith Thirion, the director of advocacy and programs for coalition member and the state’s top LGBT rights organization Equality Maryland. “The majority of Marylanders believe that everyone should be treated fairly, including having the opportunity to work for a living, secure housing and get served lunch at a restaurant.”

Thirion also pointed out that elected officials from the local jurisdictions with nondiscrimination protections for transgender people testified in favor of the bill, and that none of the hypothetical scenarios envisioned by opponents has occurred in any of the local counties. In fact, several transgender-rights supporters pointed out during debate on SB 212 that failing to pass the bill would not stop hardened criminals from breaking laws, already on the books, that punish people who commit sexual assault

“It is disappointing that anti-transgender activists are still telling Maryland citizens the same myths that fair-minded Maryland legislators have already seen through and rejected by a wide margin,” said Jer Walter, managing attorney of FreeState Legal Project. “The reality is that the Fairness for All Marylanders Act does not weaken state law on ogling, indecent exposure, or sexual assault in any way. Delegate Parrott’s misleading comments about bathrooms would almost be comical if he weren’t using these scare tactics to confuse the public and oppose basic civil rights protections in employment, housing, services and public spaces.”

Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery Co.), the lead Senate sponsor of SB 212, issued his own statement regarding a possible referendum.

“I am extremely disappointed that a small group of conservative activists launched a misguided and deceptive petition drive against including antidiscrimination protections for transgender Marylanders and their families in our civil rights law,” Madaleno said. “…After a majority of Maryland voters sided with fairness and equality in approving both marriage equality and the Dream Act in our state, conservative activists are once again poised to lose their fight against expanded civil rights and freedoms…I would hope the voters of Maryland would not sign their name and address to a public declaration in support of discrimination. It will be a permanent mark of shame.”

 Gender Rights Maryland (GRMD), another transgender-rights organization whose members have played a role in lobbying for such protections for transgender people over the past eight years, released its own statement on the referendum.

 The organization noted that its board member and legislative committee chairman Jonathan Shurberg, an attorney and candidate for the House of Delegates in District 20, has agreed to represent the interests of the statewide law in the event that opponents submit the required number of signature to the State Board of Elections. In 2008, Shurberg successfully argued to keep Montgomery County’s 2007 gender identity law off the ballot, and has since advocated on behalf of similar bills that passed in Howard and Baltimore Counties, neither of which were successfully challenged by opponents.

Gender Rights Maryland said in its press release that any legal campaign against the referendum would not begin until late July, after the state’s primary election and after the State Board of Elections has certified all signatures submitted by opponents of transgender equality.

“This law enjoy broad support across the political spectrum in Maryland,” GRMD Executive Director Dana Beyer, herself a candidate for the District 18 Senate seat, said in a statement. “The petition drive by Delegate Parrott simply shows the desperation of a small group of right-wing zealots seeking to perpetuate old stereotypes.”

Beyer added, however, that GRMD will employ all available strategies to defeat the referendum, saying, “Even successful political campaigns have extraordinary costs. If we can defeat this effort in court, we will. But one way or the other, we’re going to win.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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