Advocates look to expand trans rights in Maine after committee sinks discriminatory bills, by Evan Popp

Following the rejection of three anti-trans bills by the majority of the Maine Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on May 20, advocates are turning their focus to working on larger cultural and institutional shifts toward trans rights while also looking to pass several more immediate bills this session. 

Two of the three bills that rights groups and other advocates in Maine have been focused on sinking this year are designed to ban transgender women and girls from participating in school or collegiate sports in accordance with their gender identity, part of a national trend of similar legislation. The bills are sponsored by Reps. Beth O’Connor (R-Berwick) and MaryAnne Kinney (R-Knox) and have a host of Republican co-sponsors. The other measure, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Oxford), would allow for discrimination against trans women by women’s shelters. 

Each of the bills received majority “ought-not-to-pass” designations from the Judiciary Committee, with Democrats voting against them and Republicans supporting the measures. The bills are not likely to go anywhere on the floor of the legislature, as Democrats have the majority in both chambers and Janet Mills, a Democrat, holds the governor’s office.

Quinn Gormley, executive director of MaineTransNet, said while she’s happy the bills are headed for defeat, they shouldn’t have been introduced in the first place. She pointed out that those testifying in support of the measures didn’t have any actual evidence that there was even a problem for the bills to address. 

“The shelter bill, the sports bills, those are fabricated issues. But even though they are not going to become law, they have done real harm, particularly to young people. I am devastated that another generation of queer kids know what it feels like to have their existence debated by their leaders,” Gormley said, adding that comments at the public hearing by those in favor of the discriminatory bills were extremely vitriolic.

Aspen Ruhlin, a client advocate at the Mabel Wadsworth Center, had a similar reaction.

“These bills were really to target trans women and trans feminine non-binary people. It’s still very disheartening as a trans person to see how dehumanized we can be by people in the government,” Ruhlin said.

While the fact that the bills were even put forward by Republicans was damaging, Gormley praised the handling of the public forum on the measures by Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), the House chair of the Judiciary Committee, who she said did “a remarkable job managing a very difficult set of hearings.” And even as some people supportive of the bills descended into hateful rhetoric, most of the people who testified at the hearing opposed the measures, she said.  

“The incredible support we got stood out to us. I’ve never seen such a deep bench of support on a trans issue before this year,” Gormley said.

She added that one compelling piece of testimony in particular was from a trans girl in Maine, who spoke about playing on her high school soccer team.

“She made a strong argument,” Gormley said. “But she’s also a normal 15-year-old girl with braces who just wants to hang out with her friends, and that was very much what she brought to the table that day — to again just show how incredibly normal trans girls are and how integrated into their teams they can be.” 

Still, despite the ought-not-to-pass committee vote, Gormley said she is concerned that the shelter bill in particular may come up again in the future. 

Much of the attention on trans issues this year has been placed on discriminatory sports bills, which have been introduced in states around the country. In contrast, the shelter bill has not been put forward in states other than Maine, as far as Gormley knows. That makes her think it could be test legislation designed to prime politicians and groups in other states to introduce such bills in the future. 

“We’re really happy to see that one defeated,” she said. “But we’re worried about it.” 

Looking ahead 

The session hasn’t entirely been spent fighting against discriminatory bills, Gormley said, with MaineTransNet pushing for a measure, LD 1044, designed to protect trans people in prisons and jails. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), would guarantee people who are incarcerated the right to gender-affirming housing and search practices and mandate that they be called by their chosen name and pronouns. 

The measure received a 12-1 vote of support in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee last week, and Gormley anticipates it will pass the necessary floor votes and be signed into law. 

That projected victory is just one in a string of reforms advocates have successfully pushed for over the past several years, Gormley said. She pointed to a bill in 2019 that requires private insurance to cover trans health care as well as updated rules announced later that year by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that extended MaineCare coverage to such health needs. 

In addition, Gormley said groups have made significant progress on documentation issues, winning gender-neutral state IDs through a court case, successfully pushing for a bill last session that permits some exemptions for public notice requirements for name changes, and advocating this session for a bill to allow for a new birth certificate when someone changes their gender marker. 

Winning those types of reforms allows the trans rights movement in Maine to now look at addressing bigger, institutional issues, which Gormley said are still a significant area of concern. 

“By virtue of having already accomplished a lot of the base-level non-discimination policies that matter, I think we have the ability to really be on the cutting-edge of what’s next for LGBT policy,” she said. “So I think we’re past the three or four sentence bills that change the definition of something and we’re moving into a nuanced, how do we shift institutional culture [discussion].” 

One such place where more work needs to be done is in schools. Gormley said educational institutions in Maine still aren’t safe for trans kids, with high rates of bullying, sexual harassment, and rejection by parents and administrative officials. 

Ruhlin, from Mabel Wadsworth, agreed that addressing discrimination against trans people in everyday life is a frontier that advocates must work toward. 

Ruhlin often does educational workshops with medical providers on trans issues and said it’s important for people — even those who view themselves as allies — to interrogate their own biases when it comes to trans people. Ruhlin said such biases are directly linked to the discrimination that transgender people still experience, even with protections codified into law. 

“It’s illegal to discriminate against trans people in Maine, whether that’s an employer firing or refusing to hire a trans person because they’re trans or a medical provider discriminating against a trans patient,” Ruhlin said. “These are things that have been illegal for a while. They still happen. And it’s because of a culture that is not only just permissive but encouraging of transphobia.” 

“[So] it’s great that these three anti-trans bills were voted ought-not-to-pass,” Ruhlin continued. “But that does not mean that the work is done.” 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the committee vote on LD 1044 was unanimous in favor of the legislation. It was actually 12-1 in favor of the bill. 

Photo: MaineTransNet, Facebook