SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A bill to expand New Mexico’s Human Rights Act has moved forward in the legislative process. But not everyone is in favor of the bill as a recent weekend debate indicated.
Saturday, February 11, legislators in the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee debated House Bill 207. Sponsored by a handful of Democratic legislators, the bill would update the language in New Mexico’s Human Rights Act. It would also clarify that government agencies cannot discriminate against a person based on gender identity.
New Mexico’s existing Human Rights Act, among other things, prohibits certain forms of employment discrimination. That bill was first passed in 1969. The co-sponsor of the latest update to the Act, Kristina Ortez (D-Taos) explained that House Bill 207 updates language within the existing law.
For example, “our statutes should no longer reference an offensive word like ‘handicap’,” Ortez explained. The bill also creates new definitions for ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’ All together, “We are saying affirmatively and clearly that no taxpayer dollars should be used to discriminate in this state,” Ortez said.
Marshall Martinez, the executive director of advocacy group Equality New Mexico, explained that the bill would also close a loophole. It would require agencies to follow the Human Rights Act not only regarding employees, but also when agencies provide services.
A handful of people, such as Austin Weahkee, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, spoke in favor of the bill. The legislation “uplifts our collective humanity and defends the dignity of our people,” Weahkee noted.
But not all legislators saw the bill in a positive light. Rep. Martin R. Zamora (R-Clovis, Santa Rosa, & Fort Sumner) expressed concern that the bill might lead to more, rather than less, discrimination. “At what point in time does it become that you’re discriminating against me because I’m not [queer or transgender]?” Zamora asked Martinez, who identifies as a queer Chicano.
Martinez replied that the LGBTQ community is simply asking legislators to prevent discrimination, not to shift the rules on who can discriminate against whom.
Some of the debate and discussion among legislators in the committee focused on definitions. “Can you tell me the difference between gender and gender identity?” Zamora asked. Rep. John Block (R-Alamogordo) also asked about definitions.
“I think the point of what you’re doing is good. I support it in theory,” Block said. “But I just have some questions regarding these definitions.” Block explained that he’s concerned the definitions in the bill could quickly become outdated.
“Sex is a scientific categorization, gender is the public or societal perception of us, and then gender identity is how we identify ourselves,” Martinez, from Equality New Mexico, explained, “And those are three very distinct things.”
The committee’s three Republicans, Rep. Block, Rep. Bill Rehm (Abq.), and Rep. Zamora were the only members that voted against the bill. “Do-pass” votes from five Democrats, however, allowed the bill to move forward.