Transgender Bill Passes Easily Despite Protests

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved broad protections for transgender individuals in housing and employment yesterday, despite vigorous protests from a coalition of conservative groups that said the measure would lead to indecent exposure in public locker rooms and restrooms.

Without debate, the council voted 8 to 0 to join 13 states and the District in outlawing discrimination based on a person's gender identity. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he intends to sign the measure.

After the vote, council members quickly filed out of the seventh-floor hearing room in Rockville as opponents shouted their objections and warned that members had jeopardized their political futures.

The bill's sponsor, council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), said the spotlight on restrooms was a diversion intended to divide the council. She praised her colleagues for showing that "people in Montgomery County are accepting and fair and have a sense of justice."

Council members were besieged by e-mails and more than 1,000 calls from opponents, including more than 400 from county residents who jammed the council's main phone line. Outside the council building yesterday, about 20 protesters urged the council to reject the measure and carried signs that read "Protect Our Kids" and "Fight Indecent Exposure."

Opponents focused on a component of the bill that would prohibit discrimination in public accommodations. They said the language in the legislation was too vague to prevent male cross-dressers or drag queens, for instance, from taking their clothes off in a locker room next to women.

"Why leave things up to interpretation?" said one of the protesters, Robert Nelson of Gaithersburg, whose pastor had urged his congregation to contact council members. "We're smart enough to be able to get this right."

The bill mobilized a network of opponents, including Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, the group that battled the sex education curriculum in Montgomery's public schools.

Late last week, in response to the outcry and concerns from some fellow council colleagues, Trachtenberg agreed to pull an amendment to the bill that would have specified restrooms and locker rooms as public accommodations in which an individual could choose a room based on the gender identity that the person "publicly and exclusively expressed."

Taking out the proposed amendment, according to the county attorney's office and council staff, would allow employers to maintain "current gender-based restrictions" on such public facilities.

Jennifer Edwards, a transgender woman from Rockville, approached protesters on the steps of the council building. Even as she acknowledged that the locker room scenario they presented could "get a little touchy," she said the bill was necessary to prevent harassment.

"You haven't lived until you have had people spit on you, laugh in your face and call you an abomination," she said.

Trachtenberg was inspired to introduce the bill in part by her senior policy adviser, Dana Beyer, a transgender woman. Beyer watched yesterday's vote on TV in her office one floor below and afterward praised her boss. "She stood her ground, and her colleagues stood with her."

The attention of opponents now shifts to Leggett, who has 10 days to act on the bill once it reaches his desk.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company