By RANDALL CHASE
A bill aimed at protecting transgender people in Delaware by outlawing discrimination based on gender identity passed the state Senate on Thursday and now goes to the House.
The legislation, approved 11-to-7, adds gender identity to the existing list of protected nondiscrimination categories, including race, age, religion and sexual orientation.
It also allows for enhanced penalties under Delaware’s hate crimes law for targeting someone based on his or her gender identity.
“In the end, discrimination is wrong, it is as simple as that,” said chief sponsor Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington.
Supporters of the bill, which is supported by Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, say transgender people currently are not protected by from discrimination based on sexual orientation because transgender people can be straight or gay.
Mark Purpura of Equality Delaware, an advocacy group for gay and transgender people, said that, for political reasons, gender identity was stricken several years ago from a bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Transgender Delawareans have been waiting for Delaware and the General Assembly to come back to them and provide protection for them as well,” he said.
The legislation, similar to laws passed in more than a dozen other states, defines gender identity as “a gender-related identity, appearance, expression or behavior of a person, regardless of the person’s assigned sex at birth.”
It would forbid discrimination based on gender identity in housing, employment, public works contracting, public accommodations and insurance.
Opponents fear the bill provides a loophole for men to lurk and expose themselves in girls’ restrooms and locker rooms, then claim that they identify as females.
But supporters said the bill is written broadly enough to be interpreted in a way to allow public accommodations that have sex-specific facilities, such as locker rooms, to provide “reasonable accommodations” such as separate or partitioned changing areas, for transgender people.
Republican Sen. Colin Bonini of Dover, expressed concern about imposing liability for businesses and private citizens “because someone says they feel a certain way or dresses a certain way.”
“We just can’t take every person out there that’s different and make laws to protect them, because you step on the rights … of other people who might object to these things,” said Sen. Robert Venables, D-Laurel.
But Henry said there’s been “no rush to the courtroom,” in other states that have passed anti-discrimination laws based on gender identity.
Supporters say the bill allows employers to require workers to adhere to reasonable appearance and dress standards, but it would require businesses to allow employee to groom and dress consistent with their gender identity.
The legislation also requires colleges and universities to provide “reasonable accommodations” regarding school-sponsored housing such as single-sex dormitories, fraternities and sororities consistent with a student’s gender identity.
“No transgender male will be forced to live in a female space and no transgender woman will be forced to live in a male space,” Purpura said.
And while insurance companies could not discriminate against transgender people in issuing policies, Purpura said they would still be allowed to rate individuals “based on their biological sex.”