Jenna Fischetti picks a seat at a Baltimore County Starbucks where she can see who's coming and going. As a transgender woman, the 47-year-old is always on guard.
"My head's on the swivel," said Fischetti, a freckled brunette.
When she slips into a public restroom, she tries not to talk. If she makes eye contact with other women, she smiles and nods. For Fischetti, using the bathroom is just one small part of a daily struggle for social acceptance. She says she lost her job after she began living as a woman. She can tick off a list of women like her who've been attacked — even killed — because of who they are.
Still, the issue of whether transgender people should use the men's or women's bathroom has become a dominant issue as Baltimore County and state lawmakers weigh bans on gender identity discrimination. In recent weeks, County Council members have heard hours of emotional testimony, and opponents have said they fear men dressed as women would sexually assault females in bathrooms, a common argument against such legislation.
The council is poised to pass the bill Tuesday, but may strip it of protections for people using public restrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms. A state measure that failed last year did not include protections for public accommodations, though there's a new push against transgender discrimination in the General Assembly this year.
An incident in Baltimore County last April pushed the issue into the national spotlight, when Chrissy Lee Polis, a 22-year-old transgender woman, was attacked as she tried to use the women's restroom at a Rosedale McDonald's. The assault was caught on a cellphone camera and seen by millions on YouTube.
Fischetti says that safety is a constant concern for transgender people, and that the bathroom debate is a distraction.
Critics disagree. Anita Schatz, a 59-year-old retired school secretary who lives in the county, was first to speak at a council meeting last month. She said she was raped more than 40 years ago and that she feared women would be sexually assaulted in restrooms.
Schatz, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the anti-discrimination bill, adds that her fears go beyond the bathroom. She's more worried, she said, about the kind of world her granddaughters face.
"We just don't want them turning our children into what they are," she said. "It has to do with morals because parents have a right to raise their children the way they want."
Polis, now 23, said she believes transgender people have been targeted.
"First it was blacks," she said. "And they couldn't stand black people. Now it's gay people. What's it gonna be next, handicapped people? They find something to pick at."
'Not a bathroom bill'
Catonsville Democrat Tom Quirk was driven to introduce the bill after hearing the stories of parents who say their transgender children have faced bullying and harassment.
He said critics have spread misinformation. After some Baltimore County opponents of the legislation spread rumors that four women were raped in Montgomery County bathrooms because transgender anti-discrimination laws emboldened predators, that county's police chief wrote a letter saying that was not true.
"The opposition to this bill often talks about everything except for what this bill is about," Quirk said. "If the opposition wants to be honest about their concerns, I think they first have to admit to themselves and publicly that they're OK with discrimination. …This is an anti-discrimination bill. This is not a bathroom bill."
Baltimore County's bill would add both gender identity and sexual orientation to the county's existing human relations laws. Those rules prohibit discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations based on race, religion and other characteristics.
Nationwide, more than 160 cities and counties have laws banning transgender discrimination, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocacy organization. So do 16 states and Washington, D.C.
In Maryland, Montgomery County, Howard County and Baltimore City have laws that ban discrimination against transgender people. Howard County's law passed last year.
In Baltimore County, three Democratic council members have joined Quirk in sponsoring the bill: Chairwoman Vicki Almond of Reisterstown, Cathy Bevins of Middle River, and Kenneth Oliver of Randallstown.
The issue has been grueling for the whole council, said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican.
"Every time there's a public hearing on this, every time there's testimony, you leave physically exhausted," Marks said. "Even though you're only listening, it's a very draining experience. It's one of those issues that's emotionally very raw on both sides."
Marks, who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, plans to vote for the transgender bill this week — as long as there are clear exemptions for religious institutions and provisions to allow employers to require standards for workers' personal appearances.
"As long as the bill is about everyone having the right to get housing or a bank loan or training for a job, then I feel like, as a Republican, how can I oppose something that makes someone more independent and self-sufficient?" he said.
When Fischetti lived as a man, she worked in the auto industry, as a salesman and finance manager. She always drove a new car. Today, she takes the bus and the light rail. She makes $8 an hour at Kohl's and lives in Baltimore City with other transgender friends.
She says she lost her job at a luxury car dealership in Baltimore County after her boss found out she was transgender about eight years ago. At the time, she went to work as a man but was beginning to transition to a woman in her personal time — trimming her eyebrows, growing out her hair.
Fischetti grew up middle class, one of four boys in a Catholic family. She was an altar boy and Boy Scouts member. Her father worked in real estate. Her mother stayed home.
She sensed she was different at age 6. Someone brought a pile of hand-me-down-clothes to her family's Laurel home. She gravitated toward a jumper. When she played G.I. Joe's, she always devised a back story for the figurines, the way little girls do with dolls.
She married young and had three children, now in their 20s. Her marriage ended before she turned 30.
She said she used drugs and alcohol to escape the pain of the secret she carried. She ran up big bar tabs, blew her money on flashy watches and nice clothes. "All the stuff that means absolutely nothing now," she said.
Today, she receives food stamps. But she's more at peace with herself than ever.
Fischetti emphasized that gender expression is not about sex or anatomy. She shows gender in the way she moves her hands, in her soft voice.
After a packed hearing in the Baltimore County Council chamber last week, members announced that they would consider an amendment to exempt locker rooms, bathrooms and dressing rooms from the bill.
Bathrooms and similar facilities were their constituents' biggest concern, some members said.
One Maryland group that opposes transgender laws, Maryland Citizens for a Responsible Government, runs a website called http://www.notmyshower.com. The group calls the county's proposal a "'Peeping Tom' Law" and says it's "a direct attack on women's privacy."
Opponents of transgender legislation across the country have focused on bathrooms in places such as Missoula, Mont. and in Massachusetts, said Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign.
"It is their most consistent talking point over the past several years," Warbelow said. "Unfortunately, it's really just a scare tactic. They claim that women are going to be sexually assaulted in bathrooms. … Sexual assault is a very frightening topic. It's a topic that women and most men are concerned about."
While Schatz, the retired school secretary, has focused her public testimony on bathrooms, she said she is most worried that children could be taught about homosexuality and transgender issues in school.
"This is their way to get their foot in the door to indoctrinate," she said of the gay and transgender community. "First you get a cross-dressing teacher. … Next thing, you've got tolerance training."
State Del. Richard Impallaria, a Republican who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, cited the bathroom issue when a statewide bill was pending last year.
The delegate also said he doesn't believe employers should be required to accept a worker's decision to change their gender expression. Impallaria said he is concerned that anti-discrimination laws would lead to situations where "halfway through the school year, you have a schoolteacher that used to be Mr. Bob that's now Miss Sally."
He said he believes transgender people have a mental disorder. "I don't want to be mean about it and look at it in a mean light," he said.
The psychiatric community no longer considers people who are transgender to be mentally ill, said Chris Kraft, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit and expert on gender issues. It is very rare for someone who transitions to change their minds or regret transitioning, he said.
Many transgender people struggle with substance abuse, depression, and other mental health issues, Kraft said. "It's not because of their gender identification, it's how they're being treated by society," he said.
Male-to-female transgender people often face more stigma than someone who is female-to-male, he said.
Culturally, "it's much more of a violation to leave a male role and identify as female," Kraft said. "Sadly, we're in a misogynistic culture still, and we don't understand why a man would want to become a woman."
Not everyone who is transgender undergoes reassignment surgery, said Sharon Brackett of the group Gender Rights Maryland.
Brackett said it's matter of safety for transgender people to have protections in public places, including restrooms.
"Every time a transperson goes in the bathroom, they're wondering, 'Am I gonna get beat up?'" she said.
And public accommodations include buses, hospitals and other places, she said. "Most people don't have any concern about those things, but transpeople are terrified," Brackett said.
Owen Smith, a transgender man and field organizer at Equality Maryland, said his organization opposes the bathroom amendment proposed for Baltimore County's bill.
"Human beings are social beings," Smith said. "If we can't be in public, what kind of life does that force us into?"
•Nationwide, 16 states and Washington, D.C., have transgender anti-discrimination laws.
•More than 160 cities and counties throughout the nation have such laws.
•In Maryland, Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Howard County have transgender anti-discrimination laws. There is no statewide law.
Source: Human Rights CampaignCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun