By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
The City Council of Phoenix, Arizona recently voted on a bill to add sexual orientation as well as gender identity and expression to the city’s existing anti-discrimination bill. The bill includes employment, housing, and public accommodations protections. Those that don’t comply would be subject to a misdemeanor and a $2,500.00 fine. Phoenix already provides protections based on sex, race, religion, age, national origin, and marital status.
Testimony before the vote dragged on for five hours, with over 500 people packed into the Orpheum Theater to show their support or opposition to the bill. Religious leaders spoke out, gaining an exemption from the ordinance in the process.
As anyone who has watched the fight for transgender rights would expect, opposition to the bill dubbed it a “bathroom bill,” boldly claiming that this would somehow allow sexual predators to gain legal access to cross-gendered restrooms. One parent even brought this up during testimony, fearing for the safety of his children.
In the end, the bill passed with a vote of five to three.
Before I go much farther, I need to come clean here. My mother was born and raised in Arizona, so “zonie blood” does run through my veins. I have many wonderful, early memories of traveling through Phoenix, Prescott, Flagstaff, and other parts of the state. I’ve friends and family there.
In spite of that, I’ve watched Arizona – particularly Phoenix – gain a reputation for far-right governance. It’s become sort of an anti-Berkeley, if you will, in popular culture. While Phoenix – and all of Arizona – shares a diversity of viewpoints, I do feel it fair to characterize the city and state as being predominately conservative.
Controversy has surrounded Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, particularly in the wake of her signing the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (Arizona SB 1070). This was an anti-immigration bill that is most notable for requiring state law enforcement to determine the legal status of individuals during a lawful stop, detention or arrest” at any time there is “reasonable suspicion” that said individuals might be an illegal immigrant. SB 1070 was argued all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Likewise, “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio, the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has also been a lightning rod for controversies ranging from “birthers” to a class-action suit over racial profiling. Perhaps of most importance to this column is Arpaio’s insistence that prisoners in his jails be issued pink underwear as an attempt to emasculate and humiliate prisoners in his jails.
Yet, in a city so easily characterized as a bastion of conservative leadership, an anti-discrimination ordinance that covers the LGBT community can actually pass.
The passage was not without its challenges: aside from the sometimes-tense five hours of testimony I mentioned above, the bill has been kicking around the city council for about a decade. A similar ordinance from 1992 only covered those with city contracts and 35 employees.
If transgender rights can pass in Phoenix, Arizona – and have previously in Tucson, Arizona, Salt Lake City, Utah, and other cities one can very quickly consider “conservative” – then why can’t we pass such ordinances anywhere in this country?
In Massachusetts, in 2011, their legislature passed the Transgender Rights and Hate Crimes Bill (House Bill 502). Much like the fight in Phoenix – and many other places – this bill was characterized by its opponents as a “bathroom bill,” and the infamous “bathroom meme” argument that extending public accommodation rights to transgender people would open the restroom door to sexual predators was trotted out.
House Bill 502 also passed – but language protecting against discrimination in public accommodations was stripped out before passage, leaving out a key part of the bill and failing transgender people in Massachusetts. Members of the Massachusetts transgender community are still fighting to get a public accommodations bill passed.
We have actually had pretty good luck with anti-discrimination ordinances, even with the current use of “bathroom bill” language by our opponents. According to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute, 143 cities and counties have laws on the books prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and expression. In addition, 16 states – and Washington, D.C. – have their own bills. There isn’t yet anything at the Federal level, as a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) remains stalled and unpassed. President Obama’s administration has added a lot of transgender support into the EEOC, HUD, and other relevant departments, but has still refused to sign an executive order to give ENDA-like protections to Federal workers.
I often speak out about the “bathroom meme” and the need for our community to defeat it. Yet in Phoenix, Arizona the meme was broken. All the same tactics that were used in Massachusetts and elsewhere failed – and, again, an otherwise strongly conservative state has passed an inclusive GLBT anti-discrimination ordinance.
GLBT activists in Arizona fought long and hard for this, but showed that you can win. Their success – even with a potentially questionable religious exception in place – should be a further call to action for our community to move forward and fight.
Indeed, this victory should serve as a lesson for Massachusetts as they struggle to pass a public accommodations bill. More than this, it should serve to bolster fights elsewhere for transgender anti-discrimination bills, as well as start new anti-discrimination rights struggles. To paraphrase Sintatra, if we can make it there, we can make it anywhere.