Transgender Law Opponents Put Measure on Ballot

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Montgomery County election officials have cleared the way for voters to decide whether to uphold broad protections for transgender individuals passed by the County Council in the fall.

Opponents of the anti-discrimination measure, who contend it could lead to indecent exposure in locker rooms, have collected enough valid signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot, Board of Elections lawyer Kevin Karpinski said yesterday.

Proponents of the measure, which would prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, are scrutinizing the signatures and intend to challenge the referendum in court this week.

Jonathan Shurberg, a lawyer hired by Equality Maryland -- an advocacy group for gay, bisexual and transgender people -- said he would ask the Circuit Court in Rockville to review the validity of some signatures, the wording of the petition and the Board of Elections' process.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) signed off on the legislation in November, over the objections of a coalition of religious and community groups that said it would allow a cross-dressing biological male, for instance, to gain access to a women's locker room at a health club. The referendum campaign was led by Citizens for Responsible Government, a group whose members include some of the same people who battled the sex-education curriculum in Montgomery's public schools.

"We have shown that over 5 percent of the county's voters want to see the bill on the ballot," the group's president, Ruth Jacobs, said in a statement, adding that "the Council is really out of step on this one."

Not so, said the bill's sponsor, council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), who noted that Montgomery followed 13 states, the District, Baltimore and 90 other local jurisdictions in passing legislation to ban discrimination against transgender people. Officials in cities with similar protections on the books have said the laws have not been exploited for criminal activity.

If the referendum withstands legal challenges, Trachtenberg said she expects Montgomery voters "will reject discrimination and confirm their unwavering support for the human rights and dignity of transgender individuals."

Even though the legislation was approved unanimously by the council, elected officials received thousands of e-mails and phone calls urging them to reject the bill. Opponents were troubled by how the measure would apply to facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

In response to those concerns, the council removed language from the bill that would have allowed an individual to choose a facility based on the gender identity that the person "publicly and exclusively expressed." Even so, opponents said the measure is still open to interpretation by the county's Office of Human Rights and does not include exemptions for hiring by religious organizations.

As opponents collected signatures throughout the county, council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) accused them of spreading misinformation. Current law makes exceptions for "distinctly private and personal" spaces such as restrooms and locker rooms, and he said the council's changes would still allow owners of restaurants and other public accommodations to segregate those facilities based on biological sex.

"The misinformation being put out about this law really troubles me," Knapp said in a statement. "We guaranteed that certain people in our county will have the same rights as other residents -- and that is all we did."

The law was to have taken effect Feb. 20, 90 days after Leggett signed it, but the referendum effort stopped its implementation.

Placing a referendum on the ballot requires the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters, or about 25,000 people. The last time Montgomery voters were asked to weigh in on a council initiative was in 1994, when they upheld a funding structure for a controversial incinerator. In 1984, a court invalidated a referendum brought by a group that opposed the addition of sexual orientation to the county's discrimination law.

Michelle Turner, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Responsible Government, said the group is bracing for a legal challenge and has lined up assistance from the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal group.

"They've got a big fight on their hands," she said.

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