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Colorado lawmakers sued for censoring critics of transgender felon name change bill

Democrat-led General Assembly also recently exempted itself from the state's open meetings law after losing court battle, with law taking effect as soon as Democratic governor signed it.

Published: April 11, 2024 11:00pm

As Scots including author J.K. Rowling face the possibility of prosecution for misgendering people who identify as the opposite sex, even from their own homes, Coloradans face a less drastic threat: censorship of language that refers to males as such in public.

The Institute for Free Speech sued several Centennial State lawmakers on behalf of two gender-critical groups for shutting down and chilling their members' speech at Jan. 30 and March 27 legislative hearings, even purging the latter's "official audio record" of "significant portions" of one plaintiff's remarks.

"By forcing speakers to adopt a contested ideology" through mandatory use of female pronouns and non-legal names for men who identify as women, "Colorado lawmakers unlawfully privileged one viewpoint over another and silenced dissent," IFS senior attorney Del Kolde said.

The state's House and Senate Judiciary Committees were considering what's informally called "Tiara's law" (HB24-1071), a bill that deems gender identity "good cause" for transgender felons to legally change their names, automatically satisfying one of the requirements for approval. 

It passed the House in March, the Senate last week and is now awaiting action by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. 

The informal bill name refers to the Colorado drag performer known as Tiara Latrice Kelley, who formerly worked at Club Q, the target of a mass shooting in 2022, and started a fundraiser for club staff that raised nearly $10,000

Kelley is consistently identified with female pronouns by the media but has two dozen convictions in Florida as a male under the name Duane Antonio Kelley, The Publica reported, citing its review of criminal records.

They include "driving without a valid license, criminal trespassing, forgery, possession of controlled substances, and several instances of prostitution and lewdness." 

Democratic leaders removed Republican Rep. Scott Bottoms in a Feb. 26 House debate on formally renaming the bill "Tiara's law" when he refused to refer to the felon with female pronouns or non-legal name, Fox 21 reported.

The legislation comes as public scrutiny is heavy on Planet Fitness for letting males who proactively identify themselves as women into its women's locker rooms. 

The "Judgement Free Zone" fitness chain's stock price tumbled in the aftermath of an Alaska location canceling a woman's membership for documenting a man shaving "in a towel" near a "freaked out" girl in their locker room, though the stock has largely recovered.

A North Carolina location stood by a female member who called 911 last week on a naked man in the women's locker room calling himself a woman, Christopher Allan Miller, who was charged with indecent exposure to a minor.

Miller might have received different treatment for a few reasons. The caller said he was "walking around showing us his" genitals, and "sources" told WSOC-TV that Miller "asked a woman to rub lotion and shower together." 

The TV station said there's no evidence Miller self-reported as a woman when he signed in, and Planet Fitness implied he violated its harassment policy.

"Kelley’s criminal history currently makes a name change difficult in Colorado and this is why Kelley has advocated for a change in the law," the IFS First Amendment suit says.

The felon's drag production company organizes shows that let children attend or even perform, including a Jan. 21 show with three child performers, according to Rocky Mountain Women's Network cofounder Christina Goeke. IFS is representing them organizationally and individually.

Goeke and Gays Against Groomers Colorado member Rich Guggenheim, the other organizational and individual plaintiffs, attended the House Judiciary hearing in person and virtually, respectively.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Julie Gonzales, the prime sponsor of the bill, opened the hearing by saying she "sincerely hope[s]" that commenters will not misgender or "deadname" others by using their legal or sex-associated names, the suit says.

House Judiciary Chairman Mike Weissman "then adopted these sentiments as rules for the forum," at which point Guggenheim left the comment line because he could not "use language denying the validity of trans ideology."

Video shows Goeke struggling to get through her comments in the hearing room, interrupted by both lawmakers and activists, starting when she refers to Kelley as "an admitted prostitute." 

The crowd started booing, and Weissman told her to "not get into individual personalities."

Goeke replied "the bill is literally named after him," riling up the activists, and said "misgendering is not a crime … sex matters" and gender "means nothing."

Rep. Leslie Herod interjected "I’m not going to allow that" when Goeke again called Kelley a prostitute who "works with children," and Weissman called recess with 31 seconds left on Goeke's speaking slot. 

A sergeant at arms escorted her out after Goeke fumed, "I let them spew their bullsh*t about gender," and bill supporters including Kelley testified without interruption, the suit says.

Both Guggenheim and Goeke attended the Senate Judiciary hearing in person to speak against the bill. 

Chair Gonzales threatened to remove commenters who do not show "dignity" and adopted sponsoring Sen. Dafna Michaelson Jenet's request to not let commenters misgender, deadname, "disparage" or use "derogatory language" toward others, the suit says.

Gonzales "gavel[ed] down" Goeke when she called Kelley "Mr. Duane Powell" – another surname the performer has used – and reminded her of the rules.

Goeke said she couldn't lie about Kelley's sex and that "a man is a man," prompting more gaveling as Goeke tried to finish her remaining 24 seconds, the suit says.

IFS posted links to the current committee hearing audio and its own recording to show a substantial chunk of Goeke's comments were missing, replaced with "silence."

The suit says Guggenheim opened his comment by noting he's gay and alleging that "two black gay male sex workers and drag queens" from the Stonewall riots, a defining period in gay rights activism, are "often falsely referred to as transgender women."

Gonzales interrupted and reminded him of the rules, and cut his microphone when Guggenheim said he couldn't misgender or deadname someone who "never identified as trans." 

She gaveled him down again when Guggenheim called Kelley a "black gay man," depriving him 56 seconds from his slot. Pro-bill speakers again weren't interrupted, the suit says. 

Gonzales set the same rules for an April 1 hearing on a bill to add gender identity to the "bias-motivated" crimes law (SB 24-189), and they may be imposed in a future hearing on a "gender-affirming health-care provider study" bill (HB24-1040), IFS alleges.

Tiara's law is the second time in less than three weeks the Democrat-run General Assembly has helped a preferred group hide its past.

Lawmakers passed a bill exempting themselves from the state open meetings law, ironically during transparency-focused Sunshine Week, after a judge found Democratic leadership violated it for using a "secret electronic voting system for five years to rank bills and prioritize spending," CBS News Colorado reported. The House settled another suit by two members.

The bill took immediate effect as a matter of "peace, health, and safety" when Polis, a former member of Congress, signed it hours after legislative approval, according to CBS. Unique in Colorado law, it lets lawmakers meet in small groups or communicate via text or email about public policy without public notice or a record of discussions. 

Colorado-based Independent Institute staff have already submitted a ballot initiative to overturn the "godawful law," as President Jon Caldara called it in a KUNC interview.

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