SANTA FE — Legislators confronted each other in testy, personal debate Friday as they moved forward with legislation to protect transgender rights in New Mexico.
The proposal won House approval on a 47-20 vote and moves next to the state Senate as lawmakers enter the final two weeks of the session.
The bill would prohibit school districts, government agencies and public contractors from discriminating on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, among other categories, when providing services.
But much of the debate focused on transgender teachers and students.
“They simply want to live their lives as who they are,” said Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, an Albuquerque Democrat who supported the bill and described herself as the step mom of a transgender individual.
Republicans lawmakers who opposed the bill sought to add an exemption for schools, contending a district should be permitted to keep a transgender girl out of a female bathroom or locker room.
“Potentially, they’ll be seeing genitals,” Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said as he argued in favor of a GOP-sponsored amendment.
Hochman-Vigil was among those who objected to the school exemption. She said it could endanger kids and expose them to bullying.
“You are actually physically and emotionally putting them in danger with policies like this,” Hochman-Vigil said as she opposed the amendment.
The back-and-forth at the Roundhouse comes as similar debates play out in state capitols across the country. But unlike lawmakers in neighboring Texas and Arizona, state legislators in New Mexico — where Democrats hold large majorities — are weighing measures to expand, not restrict, LGBTQ rights.
The New Mexico House last month sent to the Senate a proposal, for example, to prohibit cities, counties and school districts from interfering with access to gender-affirming care. The legislation, House Bill 7, has cleared one Senate committee and is awaiting action in a second.
The measure taken up Friday, however, focuses on the state Human Rights Act. It would update a variety of definitions for people who are protected from discrimination and add gender to the list of protected classes.
It also would declare it illegal for a government agencies and groups that receive public funds to limit or put conditions on the provision of services to people in certain protected classes.
“I don’t think public funds should be used to discriminate against any class of people. … I don’t want those dollars to make people hurt, to make people suffer,” said state Rep. Kristina Ortez, a Taos Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.
Republicans sought unsuccessfully to add some exemptions, such as for religious groups that receive public funding. They sometimes peppered Ortez with questions about the differences between, say, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.
“I think these are very broad definitions,” state Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, said. “They’re vague, quite frankly.”
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said he feared the proposal, without amendment, would end some charitable efforts by putting “religious organizations to a test.”
Democratic Rep. Eliseo Alcon of Milan objected: “As long as they aren’t handling government money, they can do whatever they want.”
Lawmakers of both parties shared stories about LGBTQ friends and family members, sometimes touching on suicide and discrimination.
The proposal, House Bill 207, cleared the House largely along party lines. Four Republicans — Gail Armstrong of Magdalena, Jason Harper and Joshua Hernandez of Rio Rancho and Tanya Mirabal Moya of Los Lunas — joined Democrats in favor of the bill.
Bunnie Cruse, a transgender woman from Albuquerque, was among the advocates of the bill who visited lawmakers this week to seek support for the bill.
“There are lot of transgender New Mexicans. We pay taxes, and we deserve not to be discriminated against,” she said in an interview.