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By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE—Legislation barring discrimination against transgender people passed the Maryland General Assembly on Thursday, as the House of Delegates approved the bill after an impassioned debate. The vote sends the measure to Gov. Martin O’Malley, who said he will sign it.

The bill, approved by the House 82-57, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in housing and employment, in obtaining credit and in access to public accommodations. Five Maryland localities, including Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties, have similar laws. But the measure enacted Thursday provides statewide legal protection for an estimated tens of thousands of Marylanders who say they often experience harassment, discrimination and even assaults.

When the legislation is signed into law, Maryland will join 16 other states and the District of Columbia with similar statutes.

Proponents hailed passage as the culmination of more than a decade of campaigning to extend Maryland’s anti-discrimination law to cover transgender people. The campaign came after successful political battles to protect gays and lesbians and to legalize same-sex marriage.

“It is remarkable how far we’ve come in such a short period of time,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno, chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill and one of the Assembly’s openly gay members. “I think it sends (a message) that Maryland is a welcoming place for everybody. No matter who you are, you have the opportunity to live your life, to have a job, to have a place to live, to be able to go out and enjoy a meal.”

Opponents said the legislation will endanger women and children by making it easier for sexual predators to gain access to women’s restrooms or locker rooms.

“I think this really sets Marylanders back as far as our right to privacy when we go to different bathrooms,” said Del. Neil Parrott, a Republican. “Certainly it’s very concerning for children that when an adult parent lets his child go into the bathroom, and now there could be a man or a woman in the bathroom legally.”

Parrott, who was instrumental in petitioning same-sex marriage and two other laws to referendum in 2012, said he had not decided whether to try to put this legislation on the ballot.

But Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said she wasn’t worried, noting that voters had upheld all three laws in that referendum. She predicted Parrott and other opponents of transgender rights would face “an uphill battle” getting voters to overturn the transgender rights law.

“This is about discrimination,” Evans said. “It’s about people getting jobs and having apartments.”

Most of the lengthy, and at times heated, House debate focused on bathrooms. Delegates questioned how sexual predators could be kept out of women’s restrooms and dressing rooms if the bill becomes law. Critics proffered a string of amendments aimed at that issue, arguing that men wanting to assault women or molest children would dress up in women’s clothing or simply claim they “felt” like a woman to justify their presence if challenged.

“Please make sure women and little girls are in areas free of people who will do them harm,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican.

Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, floor leader for the bill, countered arguments to change or defeat the bill. She pointed out that the legislation would not apply to bathrooms or locker rooms in schools. Proprietors could exclude transgender people from women’s or men’s facilities by offering separate bathrooms or shower stalls curtained off for them, she said.

To other critics who mentioned news reports of women and children being raped in public restrooms, Pena-Melnyk countered that there was no evidence that transgender people have a propensity to commit crimes.

Del. Luke Clippinger, an assistant state’s attorney and chief sponsor of the House version of the bill, said there are already criminal laws on the books to prosecute anyone who might enter a women’s restroom or dressing room for prurient reasons or to assault anyone. The Democrat reminded lawmakers that the legislation would provide legal protection to a group of people now denied it.

Advocates for transgender rights estimate the legislation may affect 30,000 or more Marylanders. In a nationwide survey of transgender people, more than two-thirds of the 132 Marylanders questioned said they had experienced harassment or discrimination on the job, while 81 percent of those who’d expressed their gender identity in school said they’d been hassled.

A few delegates made clear they were philosophically opposed to the legislation or unwilling to accept changing gender identity as normal.

“We can pass all the bills we want, but we can’t change nature,” said Del. Emmett Burns, a Democrat who is a minister. He added, “My constituents think we have lost our minds.”

Photo: Michael Hilton via Flickr

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