Three years ago, the vicious attack on 22-year-old Chrissy Lee Polis by two teens at a Rosedale McDonald's that was captured on video and viewed by hundreds of thousands of people raised awareness of transgender people and of the ignorance, hostilities and challenges they often face. One year later, Baltimore County approved an ordinance that protects the rights of people like Ms. Polis from being discriminated against — joining Baltimore City and Howard and Montgomery counties, which offer similar protections.
Why aren't these safeguards enforced statewide? Because for all the self-congratulatory talk in Annapolis about how progressive Maryland has shown itself to be on issues of equality and equal rights in recent years, the state legislature has so far failed to approve such a measure — although 17 other states and the District of Columbia do have transgender rights laws on their books already.
The General Assembly has an opportunity to make amends this year. A bill to outlaw discrimination against individuals on the basis of gender identity was introduced recently by state Sen. Richard Madaleno and has the backing of some prominent Democrats, including Gov. Martin O'Malley. A similar proposal passed the House of Delegates two years ago but was defeated in the Judicial Proceedings Committee, most recently by a one-vote margin in 2013.
That Maryland is in the midst of an election year in 2014 should help that effort. The influential LGBT advocacy group Equality Maryland has made the legislation a top priority, and it has drawn support from all three of the major candidates running for governor in the Democratic primary: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur. Maryland voters have shown a strong preference for equal rights with their overwhelming endorsement of same-sex marriage in 2012.
Even the Do-Nothing Congress has demonstrated an interest in the subject. Last November, the U.S. Senate approved a bill that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by a 2-to-1 margin. Maryland's proposal goes further to include housing and public accommodation, but how embarrassing is it that the U.S. Senate would show itself to be more open-minded and compassionate than its Maryland counterpart?
Like marriage equality, this is a civil rights issue. Beatings in fast-food restaurants are not the only hardships transgender individuals face. A 2009 survey found 18 percent of transgender Marylanders had lost a job because of gender identity, and 42 percent had suffered some adverse job action over it. More than half reported being harassed in public accommodations like restaurants, movie theaters and stores. Seventeen percent said they've been denied an apartment or home because they are transgender.
This is not how a civil society should treat people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned by genetics. The circumstances of such individuals can vary widely, but regardless, they ought to be given the rights afforded everyone else — to be judged in the workplace by their qualifications, abilities and performance in their chosen field, for instance — and not by gender distinction.
Like the issue of same-sex marriage, this is not a matter of special rights given an individual or group but one of resisting discrimination. It is unconscionable that doctors can deny treatment to someone based on gender identity or that a landlord could refuse to rent an apartment to, or a department store decline to admit, that same person. But without an anti-discrimination law, such individuals have no choice but to suffer intolerance and bias.
One year ago, Maryland witnessed its first same-sex wedding, and it was cause for celebration. The tidal wave of change and enlightenment has continued to sweep across the country, most recently with a federal judge's ruling that Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Transgender rights should not be far behind. People like Chrissy Lee Polis should be able to live without fear and be productive members of society. That the Maryland General Assembly has so far failed to support that cause by banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity is shameful. Let corrective action be a high priority for all legislators and not just LGBT advocates and Democratic candidates for governor.
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