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On Tuesday, York City Councilman Michael Helfrich introduced two bills that would explicitly include people with nonconforming gender identification in the city's anti-discrimination ordinances as a protected class.

The anti-discrimination laws, enforced by the city's Human Relations Commission, protect people from discrimination related to housing, employment, religious observance, public accommodation and immunity from any requirement to perform abortion and sterilization.

The current laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religious creed, sex, age, familial status, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, disability and the use of a guide or support animal because of the disability of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals.

Gender identity was already included in the city's nondiscrimination laws, Helfrich said Sunday, but it was included under the umbrella of sexual orientation.

According to Helfrich, this represents a misunderstanding.

"Gender identity has to do with how you feel about yourself," he said. "Sexual orientation is who you're attracted to sexually."

Under the term "gender identity," the laws protect people who don't identify exclusively with their assigned sex. That could mean someone who identifies as the opposite sex, someone whose gender identity is fluid or someone who identifies as a gender outside the masculine-feminine binary.

A step forward: The bills won't change the law, Helfrich said. Instead, they show an evolving understanding of gender and sexuality.

"One of the reasons why York is special, and why the Human Relations Commission is important," Helfrich said, "is that neither sexual orientation nor gender identity is protected by the state."

According to the ACLU's website, three of Pennsylvania's neighbors — Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey — provide protection from discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity while Pennsylvania provides neither.

"It's a great step forward for York City," Human Relations Commission board Chairwoman Karen Rollins-Fitch said last week.

But even with clearer wording in the anti-discrimination laws, it's still going to be "somewhat difficult" to enforce the laws that protect gender identity because people need to feel safe coming forward to make complaints, she said.

Rollins-Fitch said that those with nonconforming gender identities are vulnerable because many they encounter do not understand them and so react negatively and don't respect their gender identity.

"We all have so much more work to do when it comes to changing the laws, understanding others and making everyone feel comfortable at the table," she said.

City Council members will vote on the bills at their Oct. 6 meeting.

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.

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