DOVER — After heated debate and rousing personal testimony, legislation to add the term gender identity to Delaware’s non-discrimination clause passed the state’s Senate and now heads over to the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 97, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East, passed by a vote of 11-7 with two senators not voting and one absent.
“Right now I am feeling a lot of hope after the Senate’s vote today,” said Sarah McBride, a transgender Delawarean who has been lobbying with LGBTQ activist group Equality Delaware. “I’m excited to move to the House to talk to the representatives there about ensuring basic fairness for every Delawarean.
“This was one step, but it’s not over. We still have a long way to go before we ensure basic fairness for every Delawarean.”
By adding the term “gender identity” to the list of prohibited practices of discrimination and hate crimes in the state, the bill effectively forbids discrimination in housing, employment, public work contracting, public accommodations, and insurance.
Mark Purpura, president of the Equality Delaware foundation, said for the past 15 years after the non-discrimination employment act was passed in 1999, transgender Delawareans have been waiting for the General Assembly to address their concerns. The original legislation in 1999 had been rewritten without gender identity included.
Mr. Purpura said the bill clarifies that employers would still be able to enforce dress codes in the workplace, and colleges will have a wide range in latitude to accommodate transgender students in housing.
The bill only addresses fairness and basic rights, Ms. McBride said.
“There is no other effect of this bill and to say that is offensive and frankly untrue,” she said.
Nevertheless, many senators raised questions to the practical applications of the legislation.
Senate Minority Leader, Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, focused on the potential abuse of gender-specific bathrooms.
An example is a sexual predator potentially claiming to be transgendered in order to access women’s facilities.
“A person that is inclined to enter into the bathroom of the opposite sex is going to do that regardless of what the law is,” Mr. Purpura said in response. Of the 16 jurisdictions, including Washington D.C., that have similar laws and the 165 counties and cities, he said there have been no documented cases of such conduct.
“It does not allow predators to prey on children,” said Deputy Attorney General Patricia Dailey Lewis, head of the state’s Family Division in the Department of Justice. She said there is a basic misunderstanding about someone who would abuse opposite bathrooms under the guise of being transgendered.
Sen. Colin R.J. Bonini, R-Dover, was disheartened by the witness testimony.
“This has been some of the most evasive disingenuous testimony,” Sen. Bonini said.
Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr., D-Laurel, wondered where the state could go after enacting this legislation, even going as far as sharing a dream he had which led to his vote. In his dream he said he was asked to prove his gender, and he had a simple solution.
“I can just show you my gender,” he said.
While he maintained he strongly believes in civil rights and non-discrimination, he felt the bill has too many pitfalls.
“We can’t just take every person out there that’s different and make laws to protect them,” he said.
For Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North, there have been issues of discrimination on the basis of color, gender and sex, and the state had a duty to rectify them with legislation.
“We shouldn’t, but we found we had to,” Sen. McDowell said, and as such the gender identity bill should be signed into law.
Ms. McBride said she hopes the legislation will make its way through the General Assembly as soon as posible.
“A right delayed is a right denied. It’s been 15 years since this idea was first talked about in these halls,” she said. “Fifteen years of people in Delaware being discriminated against legally because they are transgendered.
“As long as we do it this session, then I think transgender Delawraeans can move forward knowing Delaware is a place that is welcome and safe for everyone.”
The bill will be heard in the House Administration Committee next Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. in the House Majority Caucus Room at Legislative Hall.
Staff writer Jen Rini can be reached at 741-8250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow DSNJen_Rini on Twitter.