It took more than a two-hour discussion that ranged from restrooms to rights to religion, but Lawrence city commissioners late Tuesday approved a controversial provision providing new legal protections to people who are transgender.
On a 4-1 vote, commissioners agreed to add gender identity to the list of protected classes in the city’s anti-discrimination code. The new language will make it illegal for employers, landlords and most businesses to discriminate against people who are transgender or don’t identify with the gender of their birth.
Commissioners approved the ordinance in front of a deeply divided crowd of more than 70 people who filled the City Commission chambers and much of the lobby. Commissioners heard from multiple Lawrence residents who said that the new ordinance would wrongly condone a “lifestyle choice” that some individuals make to be transgender and that it violated Biblical teachings.
A majority of commissioners, though, were unswayed.
“Looking at this, a lot of these arguments just fall flat,” said Mayor Aron Cromwell. “This is not about morality. It is about discrimination.”
City Commissioner Mike Amyx voted against the ordinance. He said he was not comfortable overruling two previous votes by the city’s Human Relations Commission that recommended the ordinance not be adopted.
Supporters of the ordinance told commissioners that when a man or a woman transitions to the opposite gender, it often is not a lifestyle choice but rather was a matter of biological disposition that they have no control over. Supporters did not have statistics on how often transgender people are discriminated against in Lawrence, but they said they were sure that it was an issue.
“This ordinance can send a message of acceptance and say that Lawrence is a place where everyone can be themselves,” said Scott Criqui, a Lawrence resident who has led an effort to get the law passed.
A good part of the evening at City Hall was spent on bathroom talk. Commissioners heard from several speakers who said they were concerned that the new law would allow for biological males who now identify as females to legally enter a female bathroom or locker room. Toni Wheeler, director of the city’s legal department, said that generally an employer or business owner no longer would be allowed to dictate that only biological females, for example, could enter the female restroom. Wheeler said that the new law would provide protections to people who “persistently” identify with a gender different from their gender at birth.
Many in the crowd did not like the sound of that.
“If this passes,” Lawrence resident Greg Cromer said to the five male city commissioners, “any one of you can go to the natatorium and change in the women’s locker room in front of my wife and daughter, and there is nothing I can do about it. In fact, if I try to do something about it, I’d be guilty of discrimination.”
Commissioners, though, said they didn’t see any evidence of where such behavior was a problem in the more than 40 other jurisdictions that have such laws across the country. They also rejected the argument that the new law would make it easier for people to commit lewd acts in restrooms.
“Predatory people aren’t waiting on this to become law,” City Commissioner Hugh Carter said. “They’re pretty sneaky as it is, and we have laws to deal with them.”
Commissioners also rejected concerns that business owners would be severely restricted in who they could hire or fire as a result of this law, noting that in Kansas an employee can be fired for any legitimate business purpose.
“I think this is very workable from a business standpoint,” said City Commissioner Bob Schumm, who is a restaurant owner. “What it comes down to is I simply can not tolerate discrimination.”