Today, there is so much that seems to make us afraid. Cancer, terrorism, budget deficits, Chinese competition — the list goes on. Let's add to the list transgender people, those who identify with a sex other than the one to which they were born. Sometimes they even seek surgery to physically change their sex to match their identity. This seems to make many other people afraid, confused, resentful — and sometimes even violent.
The assault of Chrissy Lee Polis in a Baltimore County McDonald's restaurant, where the transgender woman had the temerity to use the bathroom, is just the latest case. Fear of transgender people spreads into housing, employment and treatment in various public places. Anthony "Tyra" Trent also was the victim of an attack triggered by her transgender status; earlier this year she was found asphyxiated in a vacant Baltimore house.
Then there was Aiden Rivera Schaeff, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School student who entered ninth grade as a girl. After identifying that he felt more at peace as a boy, Aiden transitioned to his new sex. Though school authorities supported his choice, some fellow students were cruel. Aiden committed suicide April 22, 2010, at age 17.
We cannot police ignorance. Nor can society prevent all crimes. But our society should set a tone of tolerance for the differences among us — especially when those differences are hard to understand or make us uncomfortable.
For people changing genders, it is not a casual decision. The change causes an earthquake in the life of a transgender person. Family and friends often have difficulty adjusting, and in the workplace the transgender person risks discrimination and firing. Years of hormone therapy may be followed by sex re-assignment surgery. Transgender people make this terrifying personal change in their lives not because it is an option but because they are compelled from within.
In an effort to protect the small Maryland transgender community from the discrimination to which its members are so often subjected, I introduced HB 235 in the recent session of the Maryland General Assembly. The bill would have prohibited discrimination based on gender identity with regard to housing, employment and applying for credit. Notably, religious entities were exempted from the bill, and the bill did not address public accommodations. While not a perfect bill, it was a compromise structured to get the votes needed for passage.
The bill passed in the Maryland House of Delegates. In the Maryland Senate, some labeled the bill "anti-family" and its passage was blocked.
Tolerance within families, communities and nations is a quality to be admired. America is stronger because it has strived to overcome fear of minorities and to end the discriminatory practices of the past. Maryland's transgender community is small and politically powerless. We, the more powerful majority, should question our fears and insist on simple fairness for these vulnerable members of our community.
Joseline Peña-Melnyk is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.