(WORT)–The city of Janesville has been busy over the last week, bracing for the arrival of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday.
Trump’s visit largely overshadowed a significant city council vote Monday, in which council members voted 6-to-1 in favor of new anti-discrimination protections for transgender people.
Janesville, the hometown of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), is only the latest city in Wisconsin to adopt such an ordinance. That list also includes Madison, Appleton, and Cudahy.
City Councilmember Sam Liebert says he’s been working on the Janesville proposal for over a month now. He says it’s much more than a “bathroom bill,” and its purpose is to prevent discrimination against transgender people in the workplace and in the use of public facilities.
“What it states is that for businesses, for the practices of hiring and firing, you cannot discriminate on the basis of gender identification. And two, to businesses and public facilities, people who identify as transgender cannot be denied service or use of public accommodations,” Liebert said.
City Council President Doug Marklein cast the lone vote against the ordinance. He says the scheduling of Monday’s vote did not leave enough time for public outreach and education around the proposal.
“Most of us are enlightened enough to support the transgender community in their struggles, but this [ordinance] snuck in under the radar and it never got vetted in terms of community acceptance,” said Marklein.
“There’s a lot of people that are fairly upset that they didn’t know anything about this coming,” he said.
Among the handful of people in attendance at Monday’s vote who expressed concern about the ordinance was Michael Dissmore.
Dissmore, the pastor of Christ the Rock Church in Janesville, says he mainly attended to find out whether the new ordinance would apply to his church. He says he’s still not certain.
“Assistant City Attorney Tim Wellnitz… said he didn’t think churches would fall under the definition of public.”
Dissmore also echoed concerns raised at Monday’s meeting by parents “who have young daughters,” that the new ordinance serves as an “open invitation” to sexual predators.
“My feeling is that a person who identifies with a different gender than what their birth certificate says…I’m not concerned that those people are going to create any problems,” said Dissmore. “However, there are a lot of sexual predators out there who will leverage any opportunity they can to take advantages of situations.”
Dissmore says he was not reassured by City Attorney Wald Klimczyk’s statement in the Janesville Gazette that those who commit lewd acts or sexual crimes in restrooms would be prosecuted under already existing laws.
“That’s fine, but by then the damage has already been done,” Dissmore said.
Sam Liebert says such concerns are not grounded in fact.
“17 states have passed laws like this. Countless cities have. And there’s literally zero statistical evidence to back up that argument,” Liebert says.
Liebert emphasized the importance of ensuring the safety of transgender people using public bathrooms.
“A lot of transgender people are at increased risk of physical or verbal abuse when using the restroom they identify with, either because people assume they’re not supposed to be there or they’re not allowed to be in there, which can lead to confrontation,” Liebert said.
“I think there’s a lot of education that needs to happen,” he added.
North Carolina made national headlines last week when Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed a conservative “bathroom bill” into law, overturning a Charlotte city ordinance that established the right of transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.
That state is already facing some serious fightback over the law, which also prevents other cities from passing similar ordinances in the future. A federal lawsuit challenging the law was filed Monday, the same day the Governor of New York and the Mayor of Seattle declared a ban on non-essential, taxpayer-funded travel to North Carolina.
Liebert says he doesn’t know if state lawmakers in Wisconsin might also try to pass legislation preempting their ordinance.
A bill that would have required students to use school bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate was introduced by Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) last fall. But that effort fell flat in the face of considerable opposition.
With the legislative session now adjourned in time for reelection season, it seems unlikely Wisconsin will take up a “bathroom bill” of its own in the immediate future.