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Gay rights bills advance in Hawaii

Gay rights bills advance in Hawaii

State senators passed two bills Monday that would prohibit Hawaii's landlords and employers from discriminating against gays, lesbians, and transgender people. One bill prohibits discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity during any real estate transaction. Another would update Hawaii's current law banning discrimination by employers based on sex and gender stereotypes to include gender identity. Both bills passed 20-5, with the opposition coming from all five senate Republicans. "When we start defining sexual identity as perceived rather than actual, we're headed down a very interesting road for all of us in society," Republican senator Fred Hemmings said in a speech on the senate floor. "How does this affect companies that...employ people where they wear uniforms, and what uniforms are they going to wear?" Sexual orientation could also be loosely defined to include "fairly deviant" behavior--not just same-sex couples--Hemmings said in urging his colleagues not to pass the housing bill. Hemmings also faulted the housing bill for excluding religious organizations. "It seems that discrimination is all right if you're a member of a very narrowly focused church group. But discrimination by anyone else would seem to be problematic," Hemmings said. The religious exception was worked out with officials from the Mormon Church's Brigham Young University-Hawaii, which was concerned that the bill could force it to provide housing for gays, lesbians, and others whose beliefs run against those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Similar bills--including one last year--have failed since 1998 because of BYU-Hawaii's objections, said Rep. Blake Oshiro, who authored both bills. "Since that time, the bill has never really been able to get all this far without taking into consideration some of BYU's concerns," Oshiro, a Democrat, said. Six other states have laws that include protections for gender identity, including California, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Rhode Island, according to the Washington-based Gender Public Advocacy Coalition. Earlier versions of Hawaii's two bills already passed the house, which would now need to work with the senate to decide on a single version of each bill. Once approved, the bills' next stop would be the governor's office. While Gov. Linda Lingle hasn't yet read either bill, in the past she has said she supports anything that reduces discrimination and is likely to support the bills, said her spokesman, Russell Pang. In an ideal world no exemptions would be needed for Hawaii's law, but a compromise was needed to move the measure forward, said Ken Miller, executive director of the Center, an advocacy group in Honolulu. Protection for transgender employees is a particularly big issue, because in the beginning the transition from one gender to another is not always clear and the costs of transitioning can be high, he said. Someone might, for example, appear to be a man but then be identified as a woman on official documents. Explicitly stating in the law that firing individuals for their gender identity is illegal would give the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission more teeth in fighting such dismissals, he said. "It is not a choice to transition. It is who you are," Miller said. (AP)

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