(WOMENSENEWS)--A new county ordinance in Maryland makes Elizabeth Hampton Brown worry about the opposition to transgender rights that might be lurking on the national level.
"It looks like Montgomery County in particular is a test case for the radical right," says Brown, director of policies and programs for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Washington, D.C. "Although this gives opportunity for education it brings people from out of state into a small area to question the will of the people in that area. This will definitely have an impact on gender identity legislation in other states. We are worried that this will be a trend across the country."
Less than 1 percent of the adult population is transgender, according to the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, although there are no reliable statistics. Most transgender people face intense discrimination because their outward appearance is not consistent with gender stereotypes.
At least 93 cities and counties have passed laws prohibiting gender identity discrimination, including Phoenix, Atlanta, Louisville, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Dallas and Buffalo, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Montgomery County joined that list in November, when the county council overrode the objections of some of its members and added "gender identity" to the county's nondiscrimination code, which includes public accommodation, housing and taxi services.
The ordinance spurred an opposition group calling itself Citizens for Responsible Government into action. Members of the group had previously come together to fight local school initiatives to teach certain sexuality issues, such as gender transitions.
In March it spearheaded the gathering of 32,000 signatures--7,000 more than required--and delivered the petitions a week ahead to put a county referendum on the November ballot to overturn the ordinance.
Brown says the ordinance benefits more than the transgender community. "People can discriminate against you because you choose not to wear a dress," she says. "This law benefits both genders in that it helps people who do not fit what they're supposed to look like."
Citizens for a Responsible Government, however, says it could encourage pedophiles to enter public restrooms and locker rooms.
"We are concerned for the safety of women and children," says Michelle Turner, a spokesperson for Citizens for a Responsible Government. "Any man thinking that he has a particularly strong interest in women and children who are not related to him can put on make-up and a dress and wander into the women's restroom. It's ridiculous."
To support her point, Turner tells the story of a handful of women in a Maryland gym locker room who were frightened after being joined by a masculine individual in a blue ruffled skirt and make-up. "They immediately reached for towels and made a vocal complaint to the management who acknowledged they have transgender patrons but didn't understand why they used the women's facilities instead of the unisex showers," she says.
Turner says the ordinance should have stipulated that a person who has become female through surgery may use a women's bathroom but that individuals whose gender is more ambiguous can use family bathrooms.
"For those who have had reassignment surgery, I don't expect them to use bathrooms that are not correspondent with their private anatomy," Turner says. "But family bathrooms have been used by transgender people for years and that's fine."
Marked with a sign or a logo of a family grouping, family bathrooms have been introduced to a limited number of public facilities and were spurred in 1990 by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are often used by people with disabilities, breastfeeding mothers, parents attending children of the opposite sex and transgender people.
As signatures for the ballot initiative were piling up, Montgomery County's council president, Michael Knapp, accused Citizens for a Responsible Government of spreading misinformation by telling people the ordinance meant they would have to share public bathrooms and showers with transgender people.
Safety and Privacy
But Ruth Jacobs, president of Citizens for a Responsible Government, insists the group is just trying to protect the safety and privacy of women and children.
"They will likely create another law of the same kind if this one is formally rejected," Jacobs told Women's eNews.
The ordinance says nothing about the use of public accommodations and does not restrict restaurants or other public venues from segregating those facilities by biological sex.
In a March press release Citizens for a Responsible Government said the lack of specific language about bathroom access meant that conflicts arising over the issue would wind up at the county's human rights commission, which is authorized to eliminate discrimination, prejudice, intolerance and bigotry in housing, recreation, education, health, employment and public accommodations.
Stephanie Seguin, acting president of the National Organization for Woman in Gainesville, Fla., where a similar ordinance has been passed, calls the bathroom-access concern a smokescreen for a more fundamental opposition to transgender people attaining stronger rights.
"I've personally had a fear of going into an empty bathroom," said Seguin, "but I don't think there is a big fear of being joined by a male-to-female transgender person."
Brown says activists against the ordinances are spreading the kind of false information that might increase nationally.
"People are concerned because of a lack of knowledge," says Brown. "We are here to educate people and with women that is particularly important."
Sandy Oestreich, founder and president of the Florida Equal Rights Alliance, says the argument about bathrooms echoes tactics used against the Equal Rights Amendment decades ago, when opponents said it would lead to unisex bathrooms. The ERA failed to gain enough state ratifications to pass before its 1982 deadline.
"I was there and I was a lot younger," said Oestreich. "I did a lot of marching. To tell you the truth, all of those things are so trivializing and inflammatory. I think we laughed them off just as we do today."
Brown says transgender people are making headway. She says that more and more people know someone who has transitioned between genders.
"We are seeing it in the news and pop-culture media. People need more information as transgender people are becoming more and more out and it is our job to give it to them," she says.
Jennifer Sager, a psychologist in private practice in Gainesville, says bathroom-access fears being expressed by Citizens for a Responsible Government may reflect a genuine misunderstanding of what transgender identity is.
"The transgender population has been using the appropriate bathroom for decades and no one has noticed," Sager said. "I've had male-to-female transgender clients who are pre-opt and pre-hormone who have been asked for tampons."
Shanelle Matthews is a Women's eNews intern and recent graduate of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.