Cleveland residents squeezed into a contentious hearing on Nov. 12 at City Hall to debate a bill that would allow transgender people to use public facilities consistent with their gender identity.
Currently before the Cleveland City Council, the measure would prohibit businesses and government buildings from using a person's "gender identity or expression" as the basis to ban someone from "bathrooms, showers, locker rooms or dressing facilities." Violators could face misdemeanor charges resulting in a $1,000 fine and three months in jail, according to the bill.
Debates have erupted across the country as local governments consider expanding antidiscrimination laws to include transgender people. Supporters argue that transgender people face discrimination and harassment in public restrooms, and, as such, this bill facilitates a civil right to access basic public accommodations. Yet the arguments on both sides illustrate a larger tussle to steer national trends.
"It is about shaping a culture for inclusion," Zoe Lapin, who supported the bill, testified before the committee. "It is not just about restrooms."
Some supporters see bills like these as a catalyst for promoting broader mainstream acceptance for all LGBT people and curbing anti-transgender sentiment. Four transgender women were killed in Ohio within the past 19 months, according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign.
But others worry bills about restrooms have dangerous ramifications. "To put this through would be opening the door to sexual predators and unwanted kinds of situations that would be very harmful," Hazel Hall, a critic of the bill, told NBC News at the hearing.
Cleveland Councilperson Michael Polensek said the overwhelming majority of phone calls he's heard in opposition came from people who live outside of Cleveland, according to Leila Atassi, a reporter of Northeast Ohio Media Group, who live-blogged the hearing in a marathon comments thread at The Plain Dealer.
One such example may be Kevin Folger, the senior pastor of Cleveland Baptist Church located in the suburb of Brooklyn, Ohio, who said in a video posted by The Plain Dealer that he brought a group to oppose the bill. "What is being proposed is not a civil right but a special right granted to specific element of the population," he said. "To us it's about morality—about whether we have fixed points of reference in our society as far as morals are concerned. And obviously, this is just one step in moving a moral goal post."
A panel in Miami-Dade County gave a preliminary nod to a transgender antidiscrimination bill on Nov. 12, to the ire of critics who invoked biblical condemnation of such a law. The bill is recommended for a vote of the full board, which is expected in December. In Houston, meanwhile, a transgender antidiscrimination bill has pitted city officials against religious groups.
The Cleveland bill requires four votes to get out of the council's Workforce and Community Benefits Committee. BuzzFeed News has requested comment from the bill's co-sponsors, Councilpersons Matt Zone and Joe Cimperman.