Alleged Transgender Assault Puts Spotlight on DC Area Laws

Gender identity discrimination laws in the D.C. area are receiving renewed attention after a security guard was charged Wednesday with assaulting a transgender woman who was using the women's bathroom at a Giant grocery store.

Ebony Belcher, 32, said she was trying to use the bathroom at the Giant on H Street NE when a security guard grabbed her and threw her out of the restroom.

"The restroom door came open. All I heard was, 'I know you are a man,'" Belcher said.

The guard, identified in court documents as Francine Bernice Jones, was charged with simple assault. Jones plead not guilty on Thursday.

According to the DC Office of Human Rights, the alleged assault violates the District's Human Rights Act.

"Individuals have the right to use the bathroom based on their gender identity they feel comfortable using," Monica Palacio, director of the DC Office of Human Rights.

Since October 2015, Palacio said the office has received 16 complaints from transgender persons who say they were denied use of a bathroom.

"They can be victims of violence they can be harassed they can be kicked out of places," Palacio said.

How the laws differ in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

In D.C., it's against the law to deny someone access to a bathroom based on their gender identity and the District requires that single-user bathrooms be gender neutral.

"A business can only turn away someone if they’re not patronizing the business," Palacio said.

The DC Office of Human Rights has had 300 complaints of public restrooms not complying with the gender neutral requirement since 2014, Palacio said.

Seventeen states, including Maryland, have similar anti-discrimination laws that specifically protect transgender people.

Virginia, however, does not have a gender identity discrimination law. Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently signed an executive order protecting state employees from gender identity discrimination.

The role of federal law

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects people from discrimination in all 50 states.

North Carolina is currently in a battle with the Justice Department over the interpretation of Title VII after passing a law that says transgender people must use public bathrooms, showers and changing rooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate.

The Civil Rights Act does not specifically mention transgender people.

Palacio said it's important for states to have their own laws.

"A local law provides much more immediate relief," Palacio said. "Fighting a claim with the federal government for Title 7 could take years for any type of resolution or relief."

Palacio said local laws may also help to inform local businesses who may not be aware of the federal law.

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