Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MontCo referendum seen as guide to nixing transgender laws in U.S.

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WASHINGTON (Map, News) - Religious conservatives are hoping a referendum on a Montgomery County law protecting transgender people could become a template to repeal similar measures across the country.

Montgomery County Council members unanimously approved a measure last fall that prohibits discrimination against transgender people in housing, employment, public accommodations, and taxicab and cable service. Council members included an exemption for “personal and private” places, but nonetheless drew the ire of local conservatives, who said they feared men would be allowed in women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.

A local group, Citizens for Responsible Government, ran a successful petition drive to get the 25,000 signatures required to put the law on the county’s November ballot for possible recall.

Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for national conservative group Focus on the Family, said his organization is tracking the Montgomery issue.

His Colorado Springs-based group is waging its own battle against a new Colorado transgender rights law, along with other groups. Focus on the Family ran radio and print ads focusing on one thing: bathroom access.

“There’s no strategy, there’s just similar concerns among people in Montgomery County, Maryland, Colorado and Gainesville, Florida, where they’re also facing a referendum on a similar law,” Hausknecht said. “This is precisely what the transgender community ultimately wants: to open up bathrooms, locker rooms across the country.” Transgender rights advocates say the bills are about ensuring no one is denied a meal at a restaurant or an apartment because of gender issues, rather than bathroom access. But they acknowledge what they call a campaign of “fear and misinformation” has been tough to fight, even in liberal strongholds like Montgomery County and Gainesville.

“Transgender is still new to a lot of people,” said Chris Edelson, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. “[Opponents] know they are working on a blank slate and if they can write something scary on it, it gets them a long way to accomplishing their goals.”

Since Minnesota outlawed discrimination against transgender people in 1993, 11 other states and the District have followed suit, as did more than 90 cities and counties, Edelson said, adding that no crimes have been linked to the measure.

“As the public becomes far more accepting of gays and lesbians, the religious right is looking for a new way to drive out their support base at election time, and they think this is going to be it,” said Steve Ralls, communications director for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Representatives of the Family Research Council did not return several phone calls. Its Web site, however, showed it is activating prayer networks to kill new laws (“including one in a D.C. suburb”) that ban discrimination against transgender people.

“May God move the Church and morally minded Americans to exercise their citizenship to restore balance before it is too late,” a prayer on the site reads. “May efforts to impose sexual identity confusion upon our children through law fail at the federal, state and local levels.”


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