By Patty Nieberg, The Associated Press/Report for America
Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to anti-discrimination statutes as state lawmakers across the country are introducing bills aimed at curbing transgender rights.
There are 21 states with full nondiscrimination protections that include gender identity, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that promote understanding and acceptance of transgender people.
A law in Utah includes gender identity in employment and housing but not public accommodations. A Wisconsin law protects sexual orientation but not gender identity.
Sixteen other states are considering some type of legislation to update nondiscrimination protections to include gender identity, according to Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Those bills come amid a conservative push to curb transgender rights through state legislation. Legislators in over 20 states have introduced measures this year that would ban transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams at public high schools. In Alabama, the Republican governor’s veto was overridden by the Legislature to enact a law that would ban gender confirming treatments or surgery for transgender youth.
The Colorado measure, House Bill 1108, would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, financial services, health care, funeral arrangements, access to and participation in public services, education, youth services, criminal justice and transportation.
The bill passed the state Senate Judiciary committee on a 3-2 vote Wednesday and will go on to the Senate floor for debate. If passed there, it would go to the governor for consideration.
The bill defines “gender expression” as an individual’s way of reflecting and expressing gender to the outside world, which includes appearance, dress and behavior. “Gender identity” is defined as an individual’s innate sense of their own gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, according to the bill’s text.
Sexual orientation is not the same as transgender, and it is not the same as gender identity and gender expression, said Sen. Dominick Moreno, one of the bill’s sponsors.
“It’s important that our statute reflects the current environment,” Moreno added.
Several witnesses testified in opposition to the bill during the committee hearng, saying the bill challenges religious expression and rights.
“By passing this law, the Legislature will continue the practice of creating a hierarchy of rights where religious freedom comes second to gender identity expression,” said Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute, a public policy think tank at Colorado Christian University.
Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, said the bill “codifies discrimination against anyone with a different belief about human sexuality” and forces “government-mandated” beliefs with financial penalties through discrimination lawsuits.
Opposition witness Michelle Markum said the bill threatens children’s safety and emotional well-being by exposing them to conversations on gender and allowing transgender youth to choose their own public accommodations.
Markum said she was concerned for her daughter’s safety and privacy because of the possibility of sharing bathrooms and changing facilities with “biological males who identity as female.”
“This is not fair for my daughter and could subject her to emotional trauma and make her feel unsafe in places where she would feel most comfortable,” Markum said.
Vessely also brought up a 2018 Supreme Court case in which a Colorado baker’s decision to not make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple was found to be discriminatory by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Supreme Court justices cited anti-religious bias on the part of the commission, saying it was unfairly dismissive of Phillips’ religious beliefs.
The same baker recently went to court again for refusing to make a cake for a transgender woman’s transition.
“If enacted, HB-1108 gives authority to that same Colorado Civil Rights Commission to enforce this new law and decide how religious expression and religious worship are applied for religious intuitions and private citizens,” Vessely said.
Several legal experts who testified in support of the bill said it would not change the existing protections under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act since “sexual orientation” already exists in the law’s language.
Iris Halpern, a civil rights attorney and former supervisory attorney for Denver’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said the protections already exist in state and federal laws, and the bill just modernizes the language and makes the definition of who and what is covered more explicit.
Marjanne Claassen testified in support of the bill on behalf of her transgender son. Claassen said her family was part of a conservative-faith community and through their son’s journey they discovered “more about a God filled with love and acceptance for everyone.”
“Learning of our trans son shattered our preconceptions of who transgender men and women are. We had to work our way through to a new understanding,” she added.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.