Maryland’s lack of transgender civil rights protections is becoming “embarrassing,” proponents say
Published: February 12, 2014
Discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on a person’s race, sex, age, creed, color, religion, national origin, marital status, disability, and sexual orientation is prohibited all across Maryland. The same protections, though, are not afforded statewide to transgender people—that is, as Montgomery County state Sen. Richard Madaleno explained at a Feb. 4 Maryland General Assembly committee hearing, those with a “deeply felt internal sense, be it male, female, or another gender, which may or may not correspond to that person’s body or designated sex at birth.”
Every year since 2007, gender-identity anti-discrimination legislation has been introduced in Annapolis, and every year it fails—despite the fact that 17 other states and the District of Columbia, along with Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, Montgomery County, and the Prince George’s County city of Hyattsville, already have such a law on the books. Depending on who you talk to, the prospects for this year’s bill—Senate Bill 212, the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014, sponsored by Madaleno—are either good or bad.
Either way, as it stands, advocates say the situation in Maryland is shameful. “We’re getting embarrassed,” says Sharon Brackett, board chair of Gender Rights Maryland, a transgender advocacy group, adding that “even Nevada has protections for trans people.” Patrick Wojahn, a College Park city councilmember and veteran of past legislative attempts to pass the bill in Maryland, says “there’s growing recognition that we’re really behind the times on this issue in Maryland, a progressive state, and that there are lives and livelihoods that are at stake. It’s frankly kind of embarrassing that we haven’t achieved this yet after so many years.”
Count among the optimists for passage this year Keith Thirion, director of advocacy and programs for Equality Maryland, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights group. “We have momentum on our side,” Thirion says, pointing to “unprecedented support from leadership,” including Gov. Martin O’Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Douglas Gansler, and Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller. Of the 11 members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee—the gatekeepers for letting the bill make it to a floor vote, where, with 25 co-sponsors, it is likely to pass—Thirion says six opposed it last year, so “we just need to switch one vote.”
But Brackett isn’t holding her breath, saying, “I have to say honestly that I’m not optimistic.” The Judicial Proceedings Committee “has not changed,” she contends, adding that “some senators still have issues” with extending protections to the state’s transgender population. “It is all about public accommodations,” she points out—referring to the measure’s proposed protections in places of public accommodations, such as restaurants, bars, theaters, and restrooms.
The fear, as Prince George County’s state Sen. C. Anthony Muse explained at the Feb. 4 hearing, according to the General Assembly’s online recording of the proceeding, is over “one who takes advantage of” the law, should it pass, and “uses that as an excuse” to gain entry to “a men’s or women’s restroom,” posing an issue of the “safety of everybody that’s involved.”
Elaine McDermott, an opponent of the bill who testified, put forth the hypothetical scenario of a man entering a women’s restroom and exposing themselves while using the facilities. “If they say, ‘I feel like I’m a female today,’ they’re not arrested,” she suggested. This prompted Baltimore County state Sen. James Brochin—who pointed out he voted against the bill last year—to ask, “So where are they supposed to go to the bathroom?” McDermott replied: “I hate to be cold, but I kind of feel like it’s their problem. They chose this lifestyle.”
Brackett has heard this all before. “At the local level, we’ve had a lot of great traction,” she points out in an interview with City Paper, “and none of these hypotheticals have happened—there’s no place in the country where it’s happened. It just doesn’t happen. There are plenty of laws against lewd behavior, and we fully support the enforcement of those laws. And this idea that one day I’ll be a girl, and the next, I’ll be a boy—this is not how it works. People don’t swap back and forth. It’s a very long process.”
During the hearing, Madaleno rattled off survey statistics finding that “71 percent of transgender Marylanders say they have been harassed at work” and “18 percent lost a job or a home,” concluding that “that type of treatment needs to stop.”
Mirroring such Maryland data is a 2011 nationwide survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality that found more than 40 percent of transgender people said they’d attempted suicide, that their unemployment rate was double the national average, that 19 percent had at some point been homeless, and that more than half had been harassed in public.
Sister Jeannine Gramick—a Catholic nun famous for her support of the LGBT community—also presented data at the committee hearing, citing a 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that found that “93 percent of Catholics believe that transgender people should have the same rights and protections of other people,” she said.
State Del. Heather Mizeur, who’s running in the Democratic primary for governor this year, competing against Brown and Gansler, pointed out at the hearing that “we don’t have to deal in hypotheticals to talk about transgender people who have actually been harmed,” such as the “brutal beating” of Chrissy Lee Polis outside the women’s restroom of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rosedale in 2011.
“Thankfully,” Mizeur continued, Polis’ “terrifying ordeal was not in vain,” since it “increased awareness” of the dangers transgender people face. “Real people are suffering real consequences from our inaction,” Mizeur added, and “fear and prejudice are not an acceptable reason for assigning a vulnerable group of Marylanders to a future of discriminatory practices in employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations.”
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