The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday heard testimony on SB449 – a bill to prohibit discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming people in Maryland in the areas of employment, credit, housing and public accommodations – as proponents and opponents of the measure aimed their testimony at certain senators who may be key in determining whether the bill advances to the Senate floor for a vote by the full chamber.
Throughout the testimony, witnesses on both sides addressed specific senators on the committee, often noting that they were constituents. Many witnesses supporting the bill pointed out that eight of the committee's 11 members already live in Maryland jurisdictions that have expansive nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.
Dr. Dana Beyer, the executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, a primary organizational backer of the bill, testified about the political shift that has happened in recent years regarding the public's feelings toward LGBT people. Quoting President Barack Obama's inaugural speech and Vice President Joe Biden's statement that transgender discrimination is ''the civil rights issue of our time,'' Beyer laid out arguments for why legislators should approve the bill. She also referenced a 2011 decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals – which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia – that found that transgender discrimination is sex-based discrimination.
Behind Beyer, supporters of SB449 filled the audience, many of them dressed in purple to show solidarity and demonstrate their support for the measure. Several wore stickers reading, ''Now is Our Time!''
Out gay Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery Co.), one of the bill's chief cosponsors, does not sit on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, but testified in favor of SB449, as did Del. Peter Murphy (D-Charles Co.), another member of the General Assembly's LGBT Caucus.
In his testimony, Madaleno specifically singled out Sen. Norman Stone (D-Baltimore Co.), who has historically been an opponent of LGBT rights, telling Stone that the bill's supporters were not asking for anything other than protections similar to those that Stone's constituents currently enjoy at the county level. Several other witnesses testifying in favor of the bill noted that they lived in Essex or Dundalk, two major cities in Stone's district, which includes blue-collar neighborhoods on the southeastern edge of Baltimore.
The other senator to whom several comments were directed was Sen. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's Co.), thought to be one of the committee's crucial swing votes. Muse, a newcomer to the committee, replaced Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George's Co.), who has been reassigned to the Finance Committee. Ramirez, a supporter of LGBT rights, is one of the bill's 23 cosponsors.
In 2011, Ramirez and Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore Co.) voted to move a gender-identity bill that did not include public accommodations to the floor in a 7-4 vote, but Brochin had also offered an amendment to exclude housing from the list of protections. That amendment failed, 5-6.
In 2012, when faced with a more comprehensive bill, Brochin again expressed reticence, but turning his focus away from housing to public accommodations, specifically public restrooms. With Ramirez gone, the 11-member committee now has five senators who voted for the 2011 bill and against the Brochin amendment.
The bill needs the support of six senators to move out of committee, meaning Muse could be crucial to passage if Brochin votes with Stone and the committee's three Republicans, all four of whom opposed the 2011 bill. Muse was one of only four senators on the committee to stay through the entire hearing, and actively participated, asking questions from those who testified in order to clarify his understanding of the bill and the witnesses' arguments for and against it.
Madaleno told Metro Weekly after the hearing that he felt many of the witnesses backing the bill had directed their testimony toward Muse for that reason. Madaleno commended Muse for being so engaged in the hearing, sticking it out until its end, around 8:30 p.m.
Supporters of the bill relied heavily on testimony from transgender residents and their family and friends, who told personal stories of how gender-identity discrimination had hurt them.
''This isn't about sexuality, this isn't about who you like, it's about I'm a human,'' said Lauren Stokling, a transgender woman who recounted being discriminated against in her job, arguing that job security shouldn't be based on the whims of a prejudiced supervisor. ''I'm a human who pays taxes, who works, just like everybody in this room, and just because somebody wakes up one day and decides they don't like what I look like, or what I stand for, it shouldn't be a day-to-day situation, particularly when they get away with it.''
Supporters also attempted to preempt opponents' arguments, with Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery Co.), the bill's other chief cosponsor, warning his colleagues that they would hear ''extravagant hypotheticals'' from opponents aimed at shocking or repulsing committee members to get them to defeat the bill.
The bill's opponents largely focused on three major arguments: that being transgender is something to be ''cured'' with therapy; that allowing transgender people access to public accommodations will put women and children at risk in public restrooms or locker rooms; and that the bill does not offer enough explicit religious exemptions to allow businesses, schools or individuals not directly associated with churches or religious institutions to openly discriminate.
''The definition [of transgender] includes cross-dressers as well as transgenders, because it's behavior and expression,'' said Ruth Jacobs, a conservative activist from Montgomery County who was involved with the failed attempt to repeal that county's gender-identity nondiscrimination law, which passed in 2007. ''There are about 3 percent cross-dressers. Those people are protected under the law. Those are the people … [that do] exposures in bathroom stalls, masturbating and so forth.''
''We don't want to bring these issues up,'' Jacobs continued. ''They make us look funny, because no one believes somebody would do it. But everyone says 'You have not seen these episodes anywhere.' What we've noticed is there seem to be more of these things, if you do a thorough Internet search, than there were when you started. This whole process has degraded and violated the respect for women and their privacy.''
Following the hearing, Madaleno and Carrie Evans, the executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's primary LGBT-advocacy organization, both told Metro Weekly they were confident of the quality of testimony that the bill's backers had provided to the committee, with Madaleno saying he felt ''good'' about the bill's chances.
''I thought our side had compelling, moving stories from transgender people across the state,'' Madaleno said. ''I think the other side had fear and their tired arguments that they have used before. I thought we did a fine job of going through and trying to debunk all of their myths.''
Evans said that including the personal stories as part of testimony has proven effective in the past.
''We learned that in the marriage fight,'' she said. ''When we changed hearts and minds of legislators, and we asked them why, it was the stories. It was people standing before them, with stories, who live here in Maryland. And it's no different for transgender realities. It's not abstract to them. It's real people with real stories … to show why they need to pass this law.''
Evans also was critical of the bill's opponents, noting they were outnumbered. In all, fewer than 10 people testified against the bill, while about 25 people testified in favor.
''Every year, they bring out the hypotheticals and misrepresent legal cases that haven't happened, or have the facts entirely wrong,'' Evans said. ''They have a few individuals – you saw the strength of our testimony, and the breadth of it – and they have the same handful of five or six folks who come out and who don't even make much sense sometimes. We think we're going to get this out of Judicial Proceedings this week, and get it to the floor, and get it to the House.''
The committee is expected to vote on SB449 within the next week. If it passes, it will go to the Senate floor for a vote. Senate President Thomas V. ''Mike'' Miller (D) has previously indicated that he is open to allowing a vote if supporters of a particular bill – whether gun control, the repeal of the death penalty, or transgender rights – can show they have the votes necessary for passage. If the bill passes the Senate, it heads to the House of Delegates.
In 2011, the gender-identity bill that failed in the Senate passed the House by a margin of 86-52. Supporters of the bill say they're confident of having the 71 votes required for passage in the lower chamber.