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Rights Laws Spread, Not Always Calmly

Rights Laws Spread, Not Always Calmly

As more state and local governments extend antibias protections to transgender people, fierce opposition is surfacing.

As more state and local governments extend antibias protections to transgender people, fierce opposition is surfacing. In Colorado, conservatives contend that a new state law will enable sexual predators to frequent women's bathrooms; in Maryland a "Not My Shower" campaign seeks to overturn a comparable county law.

Though frustrated by the resistance and insistent that the alarms are unfounded, transgender rights activists are heartened by an overall trend toward greater protection under the law. In the past 15 years, 13 states and more than 90 cities and counties -- home to roughly 40% of the U.S. population -- have passed measures banning various types of discrimination against transgender people.

Among those jurisdictions is Maryland's affluent Montgomery County, where the county council voted 8-0 last year to extend civil rights protections for housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of gender identity.

Opponents, contending the law threatens privacy in public restrooms and health club showers, launched a petition campaign to put the issue to voters in the November 4 general election. Election officials ruled that enough valid signatures were gathered, but gay rights groups were in court Thursday seeking to quash the ballot measure because of alleged irregularities.

If the ballot measure survives, activists on both sides say November 4 would mark the first time that voters anywhere in the United States will pass judgment specifically on a transgender rights measure. Dan Furmansky, head of the statewide gay rights group Equality Maryland, hopes the showdown is averted.

"I think we could win, but it would be a very expensive, defensive proposition," he said. "We don't want to subject our transgender brothers and sisters to a campaign of fear-mongering where their civil rights are up for a popular vote."

A spokeswoman for opponents of the new law, Michelle Turner of Maryland Citizens for Responsible Government, blamed the county council for the controversy, saying it enacted the bill despite an outpouring of calls and letters opposing it.

"We want the citizens of Montgomery County to have their voices heard," Turner said. "They were ignored once, and now it's their turn."

Turner's group, with a website called, has focused on access to public bathrooms and locker rooms. They contend that the new law entitles someone who is biologically male but self-identifies as female to use the women's bathroom, leaving open the chance that molesters would take advantage of the measure to intrude into such facilities.

"No longer will women and girls be able to feel completely safe," the group says. "The outrageous legislation ... may result in forcing even religious schools to hire transgender teachers -- and then also allow cross-dressing but biological males in your daughter's school locker room."

In Colorado, conservative groups waged a similar campaign last month to block a bill that bans discrimination against gay and transgender people in housing and public accommodations. Radio ads urged listeners to tell Gov. Bill Ritter he shouldn't sign the bill, though he proceeded to do so on May 29.

"Henceforth, every woman and little girl will have to fear that a predator, bisexual, cross-dresser, or even a homosexual or heterosexual male might walk in and relieve himself in their presence," wrote James Dobson, founder of the conservative ministry Focus on the Family.

Transgender activists say there is no record of any problem with predators or any other type of bathroom or shower harassment arising from the transgender rights laws already in place in scores of jurisdictions.

"It just does not happen -- it's entirely fabricated," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "There's not a single case in the U.S. of the problem they're talking about."

A Focus on the Family spokesman, Gary Schneeberger, suggested problems might surface in the future.

"It's rather early in the genesis of these types of laws for there to be a lot of concrete evidence that predators will abuse them," he wrote in an e-mail. "But the law does, indeed, make it possible -- and we would hardly be surprised if anecdotal evidence starts pouring forth indicating that."

Dana Beyer, a transgender activist in Montgomery County, said many of the conservative activists seeking to overturn the antibias law had previously campaigned against school curriculum addressing sex education and sexual orientation.

"These are people living in the 19th century," Beyer said. "They don't want to have to think of people like me.... They're willing to spend time and money and effort to prevent any sort of accommodation for transgender women."

Though she would relish victory for her side on November 4, Beyer supports the fight to keep the repeal measure off the ballot.

"To win, we'd have to run a campaign costing hundreds of thousands of dollars," she said, noting that the top funding priority for national gay rights groups will be California's ballot measure on gay marriage.

Transgender activists also are focusing attention on Congress, where liberal Democrats are seeking a federal ban on workplace discrimination against gays. Thus far, to the dismay of many activists, there is hesitancy to include transgender people in the proposed bill, for fear of jeopardizing its prospects.

New York State also is a zone of contention; the Democratic-dominated assembly voted last week for a transgender rights bill, but it's given no chance of clearing the Republican-controlled state senate.

Keisling said opposition to transgender rights runs counter to the national trend.

"Policies are changing so fast in colleges, cities, businesses that we can barely keep up," she said. "The arc of history is clear -- we will get our rights." (AP)

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