Friday, Nov. 9, 2007

Montgomery County Council acts to quell protests over transgender bill

Protests prompt committee to remove public accommodations section of the antidiscrimination bill; a vote is set for Tuesday

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After a vigorous e-mail campaign attacking the public accommodations section of a bill designed to protect transgender people from discrimination, a Montgomery County Council committee has decided to remove that portion of the bill.

Critics have inundated the council and local news media for weeks over their concerns that women and girls would have be confronted by male nakedness in locker rooms and bathrooms if the bill is passed. They argue that the bill would put girls and women at risk.

The committee’s decision came late Thursday evening and was not announced publicly. The Gazette learned of the change on Friday.

The bill as amended would prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, cable television service and taxi service.

A vote on the bill, which is expected to pass, is set for Tuesday.

‘‘The committee decided it was simpler not to include the public accommodations part. At this point, the purpose is to provide equal rights for transgender individuals,” said Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg, who proposed the bill in September and wrote it with the help of an aide who is a transgender woman. ‘‘I think it’s unfortunate that a small group of individuals sought to create a campaign of fear about the legislation.”

Trachtenberg’s original proposal did not include public accommodations, but was added after the bill was discussed at a public hearing in October.

‘‘We decided to go back to the bill as introduced,” said Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park, chairman of the committee that threw out the public accommodations provision on Thursday night.

Leventhal said the staff packet discussed by the committee included items that had come up for clarification.

‘‘In an effort to clarify, I think we caused greater confusion and uncertainty,” he said. ‘‘If there is an issue of alleged discrimination occurring in a public facility, it will be up to the Office of Human Rights to rule on the case. We will not provide guidance, and I don’t think people need guidance on how to use the bathroom.”

Asked about the committee’s decision to remove the controversial portion of the legislation, Ruth Jacobs, one of the most outspoken opponents of the bill, said, ‘‘I think that it is good that they are removing that. I think one thing this has shown is that it really was a stealth bill and not well thought out.”

Jacobs, an infectious disease specialist in Rockville, joined about 35 other critics in a protest Saturday in Germantown. The critics waged an intense e-mail campaign. Council staffers reported receiving more than 1,100 pieces of correspondence on the legislation since September, including more than 600 pieces on Friday alone. Two hundred phone calls were received over three days this week.

Debate over the legislation reached a fever pitch on Friday, reaching all the way to CNN, where Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda and Jacobs debated the bill.

Trachtenberg maintained that the bill was meant only to protect human rights, while Jacobs reiterated her position that it endangers women and girls. She cited a comment Leventhal made to a concerned parent.

In a letter the parent, Leventhal wrote that he could not ‘‘absolutely put to rest your concern that girls might find themselves in a locker room or dressing room in the presence of a person who expresses or asserts herself as a woman but who still has male genitals, but based on my own sense of the prevalence of that condition in the population, I think the likelihood of that occurring is remote.”

Even with the removal of the public accommodation portion of the bill, Jacobs said a statement should be added to the legislation protecting the privacy of women and girls.

‘‘I think we will continue to protest the incompleteness of this bill, including the weak definition of gender identity and the effect of gender identity on children,” she said. ‘‘I think we still have concerns about it. The county is stepping into the middle of a psychological debate.”

‘‘The bottom line is I am not going to stoop to their level,” Trachtenberg said. ‘‘I’m sorry they are uncomfortable with the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community. This bill speaks to the fundamental principals of law. Hopefully, things will work out positively on this.”