The debate over a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance for Chattanooga employees has come down to a battle over four words: "gender identity or expression."
Those who oppose the current draft of the ordinance, which aims to protect city employees from being fired or harassed based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, say that clause could allow transgender city employees to go into biologically opposite restrooms.
Those in favor of the ordinance say that's a distraction.
Tuesday was the last chance for people to address the Chattanooga City Council over the proposed ordinance. And a dozen people took it. The issue is up for a first vote next week, and residents are barred from speaking on agenda items.
Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West suggested Tuesday that the City Council either remove the four-word clause or add the word "expression" to each of the other qualities already protected under federal and city law, such as race, religion or political affiliation.
"The issue is not really discrimination. The issue is the wording of this nondiscrimination ordinance," West said. "All of those other items can be categorized as by birth or by choice. But expression is not a choice, it's a behavior."
But Charina Starr strongly disagrees with that logic. Starr's birth name is Kevin Starr. Starr is transitioning into becoming female. Starr told the council being transgender was a medical condition. It's not just a matter of putting on a wig.
"It is something I do for my own personal health, that I do to be a successful and productive member of this city," Starr said. "I just want you to consider later on, this is not just some choice for individuals such as myself who are stuck in this very difficult situation."
Further, transgender people often use the restroom with which they identify, and no one notices. "I can tell you personally, if I walk into a bathroom, I'm there to do my business and get out," Starr said.
Still, there are concerns.
Johnny McCollum told council members he hopes they pass an ordinance to protect workers from discrimination with regard to their employment, but he wants them to draw a line.
"I don't want anybody to be discriminated against, but I do have some concerns. If a man decides he's a woman today, and goes into the bathroom with my granddaughter, I seriously have a problem with that," McCollum said.
Chris Dooley also cautioned the council to take time and think very carefully about the ordinance before it is passed.
"This ordinance has the opportunity to be divisive. If you would sit down and take into account the inputs from the citizens we could get the best possible result," Dooley said.
But Megan Turner, who spoke to the council last week, said all the discussion about restrooms is moot.
She researched five states that have enacted similar anti-discrimination laws — some going back to 1993 — and none have any reported cases of bathroom assaults due to transgender people in bathrooms. Further, she said forcing transgender people to use birth-gender bathrooms could be even more confusing. She has a friend who is female-to-male transgender.
"He will walk into a woman's restroom and my little girl will see a man walk in with a beard," Turner said.
Councilman Chris Anderson, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Moses Freeman, said deleting the gender expression language was a no-go, especially when Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis have already adopted similar language.
"I'm not going to negotiate that someone's rights are greater than someone else's. I think if other cities can do it, then we can, too," Anderson said.
During an earlier planning meeting Tuesday, council members discussed possible changes to the wording of the ordinance, amid warnings from Freeman that the time to debate or amend the ordinance was next week.
Councilmen Chip Henderson asked if the proposed language would even legally allow biological males who identify themselves as females to go into women's restrooms, or vice versa.
Specifically, Henderson said he checked with Volkswagen and BlueCross BlueShield, and the terms "gender expression" and "gender identity" were not included in those companies' rules.
"I think these two terms right here are probably the greatest threat to a woman's right to privacy being violated," Henderson said.
Henderson asked City Attorney Wade Hinton to add definitions of the terms to the ordinance.
"I want to make sure I understand what they really mean by that," Henderson said. "I am completely satisfied that it would allow a transgender [male] to enter the women's restroom."
Councilman Russell Gilbert asked if the city could simply side-step that problem by marking its bathrooms as unisex.
"If a person don't tell you what gender they are, you don't really know," Gilbert said.
Chief Operating Officer Brent Goldberg said that was an option and it would "have an estimated cost of zero."
Mayoral adviser Stacy Richardson added the city has at least two unisex restrooms already and "we don't really police them."
Gilbert further suggested that changing the language of the ordinance could dissolve the debate.
"I don't think anyone in this room wants people to be discriminated against," Gilbert said. "Could we not put [the ordinance language] in another form that means the same thing?"
Hinton said changes to the language could happen, but they would have to be suggested and voted upon next week during the council's discussion.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or 423-757-6481.