The challenge of how to balance the budget has dominated the 2011 Hawaii Legislature and the governor’s agenda, much as it did the last two legislative sessions.

Less attention has been given to the passage of landmark civil rights measures affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — a major session accomplishment.

On Monday, House Bill 546 was transmitted to the governor for his expected signature.

The legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression “as a public policy matter and specifically with regard to employment.”

HB 546’s passage was recognized nationally by such groups as Human Rights Campaign, perhaps the leading civil rights group pushing for GLBT equality.

“The State of Hawaii is on a steady march to full equality for all its people,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a press statement. “Being free from discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and to be judged on your merits and quality of work is a common-sense approach to employment policies.”

Should HB 546 become law, HRC says Hawaii will join 12 states and the District of Columbia “in banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. … Hawaii law already codified protections for transgender people in housing and public accommodations, and prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.”

The bill’s passage represents quite a turnaround in the nine months since then-Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed civil unions legislation.

Not only is civil unions now the law of the state (it takes effect next Jan. 1) and the gender equity likely to become law the day it is signed, but Hawaii also has a lesbian serving on the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Broad Support

Sabrina McKenna was unanimously confirmed by the state Senate in February and received virtually no testimony in opposition.

HB 546 received similar, though not uniform, support.

It was supported by groups that would be expected to support it such as the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and the ACLU of Hawaii, and was opposed by those expected to oppose it such as the Hawaii Catholic Conference and Hawaii Family Forum.

But it was also supported by top unions such as the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the Hawaii State AFL-CIO.

Even the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce didn’t oppose the measure, though it did raise concerns about workplace dress and grooming standards as well as bathroom and locker room usage.

Here’s an example from the chamber’s written testimony:

The employee in question should be held to only one gender and not change back and forth on a day-to-day basis. There should be consistency in the appearance of the employee. For example, if a male pre-school teacher were to dress up as a female one day and not the next, how does that impact the students and how do they address the teacher?

The chamber suggested the bill be amended to include language addressing such concerns, but the proposal was not adopted by lawmakers.

In the final floor votes for HB 546, only four House members voted “no” — Republicans Gene Ward, Gil Riviere, George Fontaine and Aaron Johanson — as did two senators, Republican Sam Slom and Democrat Mike Gabbard.

A Federal Issue

HB 546’s authors include House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, the lawmaker most responsible for passage of civil unions earlier this year.

HB 546 defines gender equity in this way:

“‘Gender identity or expression’ includes a person’s actual or perceived gender, as well as a person’s gender identity, gender-related self-image, gender-related appearance, or gender-related expression, regardless of whether that gender identity, gender-related self-image, gender-related appearance, or gender-related expression is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s sex at birth.”

Nationally, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka is the co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill, introduced last week, would do the following, according to a press release from Akaka’s office:

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2011 would prohibit employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees from firing, refusing to hire, or discriminating against those employed or seeking employment, on the basis of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. Such protections are already in place prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age, and disability.

The press release said that more than 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies “already extend workplace protections based on sexual orientation and more than one-third on the basis of gender identity.”

In a statement, Akaka said, “For too long, we have left many hard-working Americans vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace based on such things as race, age or gender. This bill would finally codify these fundamental protections, which are long overdue. With its passage we can ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to support themselves and their families in America.”

The bill has the support of more than 75 Fortune 500 companies, Human Rights Campaign, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the ACLU and labor organizations.

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