Scores protest county ordinance on discrimination against women because of transgender language

People walk into the entrance at the San Diego County Administration Building on Friday, July 30, 2021 in San Diego, CA.
The San Diego County Administration Building in San Diego.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Supervisors vote along party lines to adopt measure based on United Nations bill


The county’s adoption on Tuesday, May 10, of an ordinance opposing discrimination against women drew 75 speakers and sparked bitter division between those who applauded its affirmation of women’s rights and others who protested the inclusion of transgender women in its language.

On a 3-2 vote along partisan lines, the board adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as a local ordinance, affirming the 1979 United Nations bill as local law.

Supervisors Nathan Fletcher, Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer, all Democrats, voted to approve the ordinance, arguing that it will move the needle on women’s rights in San Diego County.

“We make it clear in our statement of values and goals to eliminate discrimination to achieve gender equity,” Vargas said.

The two Republicans on the board, Supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson, opposed the ordinance, arguing that the county’s wording weakens protections for women by including transgender women in its provisions.

“This definition is unbalanced; it directly infringes on the rights of biological women,” Desmond said. “I do support the CEDAW as it was written. But I cannot support it as it is written today.”

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the convention as an international bill of rights for women, defining what constitutes such discrimination and mapping out plans to end it, the county staff report stated.

“Across multiple sectors, discrimination against women causes negative impacts in economic, political, and social participation of women,” the staff report stated. “This in turn results in loss of economic opportunities and poverty.”

Former President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1980, but the U.S. was not one of the 187 countries that ratified it. Since then many U.S. cities and counties have adopted local ordinances reflecting its principles, the county stated.

“Adopting a CEDAW ordinance locally will help the County of San Diego (County) achieve gender parity, decrease gender-based discrimination, and work towards the elimination of all acts of discrimination against women and girls in our county,” the staff report stated.

Discussion of the ordinance reflected cultural unease with changing laws surrounding LGBTQ rights. Some speakers argued that broadening the definition of women to include transgender people offered more comprehensive protections for all women. Opponents said that provision undermined its benefits for women.

Deja Re Cabrera, a commissioner on the San Diego County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls and who identifies as a trans woman, said the ordinance is critical for the marginalized group.

“We still face severe discrimination, stigma and inequality,” she said. “Change cannot come soon enough for trans people.”

Opponents called the ordinance a “Trojan Horse” that introduced transgender protections into an otherwise uncontroversial issue, and would subject women to unsafe and inequitable conditions. Some said the inclusion of transgender women would reverse progress on women’s rights by blurring gender lines.

“Women have been fighting for rights for decades,” speaker Lana Cotton said. “Now three local officials are trying to strip hard-earned rights from biological women and give them to males who identify as women.”

Speakers expressed concern that transgender women athletes could put their athletic opponents at competitive disadvantage. Reviving a long-standing battle over transgender access to bathrooms, locker rooms and other facilities, some said they fear men might abuse the ability to enter private women’s facilities.

“I have a wife and daughters who may be en-route to a restroom, and now I have to be concerned about what may be encountered in a restroom,” said Gerald Johnson, pastor of The Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ in Long Beach.

At some points, the public comment period devolved into abuse and heckling. Several speakers made vulgar jokes about the supervisors or delivered blistering insults. One critic who regularly threatens to make a citizens’ arrest on county officials called on the two supervisors who opposed the ordinance to “arrest and imprison” Fletcher. Midway through public comment, the board adjourned for an hour after Fletcher asked Sheriff’s deputies to remove two women from the chamber for disruptive behavior, including shouting.

Supervisor Anderson said he was worried about the law’s effects on women in sports and in public facilities such as jails.

“I’m concerned that in the wrong hands this language would be weaponized and used to take advantage of women again,” he said. “I will work to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and everyone feels loved, but I can’t step on women to get there.”

Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, the CEDAW committee chair for the San Diego County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, who took a lead in drafting the ordinance, said the ordinance would not push the boundaries of state or federal law.

“This ordinance sets forth an evidence-based, data-driven approach to identify, analyze, to eradicate discriminatory barriers for all women and girls in our region,” she said. “The definition language in this ordinance does not expand or change existing law. Such a position represents a misunderstanding of basic law.”

Supervisor Fletcher said prior civil rights expansions prompted similar warnings, but he said those fears were never realized. Fletcher said his own experience as a Marine demonstrated that after the military cancelled its policy prohibiting gay servicemembers from disclosing their sexual orientation.

“I remember at the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ they said “My God, what’s going to happen? How will Marines go to the bathroom?’ And you know what happened? Nothing,” Fletcher said. “For the vast majority of folks who spoke here it’s not going to affect their lives one bit.”

Following approval of the ordinance, the county will conduct an “intersectional gender analysis” to identify barriers to gender equity and consider “the interconnected nature of social categorizations and individual characteristics” in systems of discrimination, the staff report stated.

In the final step, the county will create a five-year countywide gender equity plan and individual plans for county departments, offices, programs, boards, commissions, and other bodies.