Assembly Broadens Civil Rights Protections to Apply to Percevied Gender
[SACRAMENTO, CA] - After a polite but impassioned debate about sexual identity, religious freedom and civil rights, the Assembly approved a measure Monday outlawing discrimination against job applicants and renters based on their "perceived gender."
The measure would broaden California's housing and employment laws to cover transsexuals, transvestites or anyone else who doesn't fit traditional male or female stereotypes. It would protect "butch" lesbians, for example, or effeminate men, or people making a transition between genders.
The Assembly twice before has approved expanding California's anti- discrimination laws to include transsexuals and others. But those attempts died in the state Senate after it became clear Gov. Gray Davis did not want the controversial bills on his desk.
This year's bill, AB196 by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is designed to protect people from being turned away from jobs or housing solely because their gender identity bothers an employer or landlord. California already outlaws similar gender-based discrimination in schools and under the state's hate-crime laws.
The measure allows companies to keep their dress codes and grooming rules, as long as the worker is allowed to dress according to the gender he or she has chosen. Landlords and businesses that intentionally discriminate face fines up to $150,000 imposed by the Fair Employment and Housing Commission or unlimited damages if a civil lawsuit is filed, just as in race and sex discrimination cases.
Leno's bill passed 42-34, with only Democrats supporting it, and now heads to the Senate. A Davis spokesman said the governor had not taken a position on the bill, which is modeled after similar laws in Minnesota and Rhode Island, and in 20 cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In his Assembly speech, Leno acknowledged the bill was new territory for some members and started with a simple analogy: the bill protects people stuck somewhere between John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe on the gender scale. In other words, he said, someone more like Pat from the "Saturday Night Live" skit, "It's Pat."
Leno cautioned his colleagues from quoting from the Bible or otherwise turning the debate into one about morality. America is "not being a theocracy, " Leno said, the only "holy" tracts referenced should be the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
"I cannot imagine anything more fundamental to liberty and freedom," Leno said, "than being allowed to peacefully go about one's day, to get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work and come home to one's family without harassment, without discrimination and without intimidation."
Republicans who spoke against the measure generally steered clear of moral arguments and focused on how businesses would handle the law. They predicted religious bookstores would be forced to hire transvestites against their will and said a flood of lawsuits would result from people switching genders in order to join a protected legal status.
"We do some real kooky things out here. Really weird stuff," said Assemblyman Jay La Suer, R-La Mesa. "As a kid, I even heard about California, how kooky we were. But this, my friends, is making it even worse for business. Let's not forget what message this sends to the rest of the nation but also our kids."
Some lawmakers saw religious liberties at stake, not the liberties of people who change their gender. Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Riverside, said the measure would require companies to employ people "who are engaged in a lifestyle your faith says is not correct."
"I believe that religious liberty is the most important liberty," Haynes said, "because you are messing with people's perceptions of their souls and the afterlife."
But Democratic lawmakers said the Leno bill does little more than add gender identity to a California housing and employment law that already outlaws discrimination based on sexual preference, race, religion, creed and other protected classes. People should not be allowed to discriminate against anyone, they said, even if they feel directed that way from God.
"In fact, these kinds of things can lead to hate crimes," said Assemblywoman Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park. "This bill sends an important message about tolerance."