The Cleveland City Council could vote as soon as Monday on legislation that would protect transgender people's right to use restrooms that match their gender identity in restaurants, theaters, and other places of public accommodation, Council President Kevin Kelley told BuzzFeed News.
In doing so, Ohio’s second-largest city could wade into a scorching national debate over transgender rights, risking the same sort of backlash unleashed on cities that passed similar ordinances recently — and then had those ordinances repealed by opponents.
“We are very close, but we need just few things ironed out,” said Kelley, who as council president decides which bills advance to a vote. “We are trying hard for Monday.”
The timing would be something of a surprise. The city council introduced the bill in 2013 and has not held a public hearing on it since November 2014. At the time, the bill’s co-sponsor told BuzzFeed News the bill looked set to pass. Instead, it sat in committee for more than 18 months as conservatives around the United States mounted an effort to mandate that transgender people only use restrooms that match their birth sex.
Two recent examples show the challenges Cleveland could face. When the Charlotte City Council passed an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance in March, Republicans in the North Carolina legislature claimed it would allow transgender women to act as sexual predators in restrooms and nullified it. Likewise, conservatives in Texas making identical claims repealed a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston last fall.
“You can never rule that out,” said Council President Kelley, acknowledging critics could run a city referendum to try repealing the ordinance at the ballot. “But it’s not a big concern of mine.”
Kelley said council members are building consensus and educating constituents to assuage any fears. He added that after talking to members of the Republican-controlled state legislature, he believes there is “not an appetite” to override a city ordinance.
“I think if done correctly, we can avoid that,” he said. "It may seem that the bill has been a dormant issue to the casual observer, but we have been working to put something forward that everybody is happy with."
Jay Brown, communications director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT group, said the vote would be particularly welcome ahead of the Republican National Convention there in July.
“Given the ugly fear-mongering by some lawmakers in places like North Carolina and Texas, this is a notable step forward in a city soon playing host to the RNC,” said Brown. “With the council's vote, Cleveland will be joining Cincinnati, Columbus and nearly every other major American city in providing critical protections to transgender people.”
The bill in Cleveland, according to a version posted in 2014, applies to more than restrooms. It would prohibit places of public accommodation — including owners, managers, and employees — from discriminating on the basis of “gender identity or expression” in its facilities. Violators would face misdemeanor charges resulting in up to a $1,000 fine and three months in jail.
The bill states that places open to the public “should allow full access to facilities without qualification to all citizens and employees, including those denied access to bathrooms, showers, locker rooms or dressing facilities consistent with their gender identity or expression.”
But concerns about the proposal have erupted in the past.
“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 a city council hearing in 2014.
Kelley said those arguments are “fear mongering” and a “myth.”
“It’s unfortunate that has come into the conversation,” he added.
If council does not vote Monday, he said, it “is very likely” the council will vote at its following meeting in July.