House won’t block transgender suits against schools, businesses

Posted June 07, 2011, at 11:57 p.m.
Last modified June 08, 2011, at 9:50 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — House lawmakers voted late Tuesday night to reject a bill inspired by the high-profile case of a transgender elementary school student from Orono who was denied access to the girls bathroom.

The controversial bill would have shielded public institutions — including schools — and businesses from discrimination complaints filed by transgender individuals upset with policies restricting their access to bathrooms, showers or locker rooms.

But the bill failed on a 61-81 vote Tuesday night after emotional debate that touched upon the topics of gender identification, sexuality, bullying and personal privacy.

“We do not need a consensus approach to human rights,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono. “And at the end of the day, passing this bill in any form … would be a step backward for Maine.”

The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration, where the sponsor hopes to amend the bill in an attempt to pick up additional support.

Sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, LD 1046 is a direct response to a 2009 case in which the Maine Human Rights Commission ruled that the Orono School Department discriminated against a young transgender student.

The student was born a boy but identified with girls beginning at a very young age, so school officials worked with the parents to allow the child to use the girls bathroom. But the situation dissolved when the grandfather of another boy at Asa Adams School objected to the special arrangement.

Orono officials eventually offered the transgender child access to a private bathroom, prompting the parents to file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

Fredette, a former commission member, believed the existing policy would produce a “rubberstamp process” in which transgender individuals would automatically win discrimination cases without any consideration of the legitimate privacy concerns of others.

“That puts all of the power — the absolute power — in the hands of the individual who is transgender,” Fredette said. “It does not provide an opportunity for parents to talk and for everybody else to talk about what their rights are and what their concerns are.”

But opponents predicted that passage of the bill would only make life more difficult and potentially more dangerous for people who already struggle with a society often unkind to those who are different. They also rejected suggestions that transgender individuals want access to the bathrooms, locker rooms and showers of the opposite biological sex in order to prey on others.

“They don’t want to stand out. They don’t want to be known,” said Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick. “They want to be accepted by the sex the identify with.”

There have only been two transgender cases that have come before the Maine Human Rights Commission during the past five years, a fact Priest says proves conflicts over access to bathrooms and other facilities are uncommon.

As proof of the social intimidation experienced by some transgender individuals, Cain said the family of the former Orono student had to move to a different town and that the young girl now lives in “stealth.”

But Rep. Bradley Moulton, R-Cape Neddick, said that while he did not support the specific language within LD 1046, he said lawmakers will have to address the legitimate concerns expressed by both advocates for transgendered students and parents uncomfortable with a biological boy sharing a locker or shower with their daughters.

“I think the sensitivities need to be addressed on both sides,” Moulton said.

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