Activists turn focus to transgender rights

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Kai Bacharach, photographed here on campus, began to transition to a male identity when he was accepted by Goucher College

The first time Kai Bacharach uttered his name — his male name, the one he chose for himself — was in the spring, at an event for students accepted to Goucher.

For the first 18 years of life, Bacharach used the female name his parents bestowed at birth.


But when it came time to start college this year, Bacharach decided to slough off an identity that never felt true. His professors, resident advisers and classmates all know him as Kai, a man.

"It makes going back to see my family weird," said Bacharach, a Baltimore native who declined to reveal his birth name. "They're starting to call me Kai, but the pronouns will take a while."


And, Bacharach says, his parents worry about his future.

Maryland, like 34 other states, lacks laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity — laws that would protect transgender people, such as Bacharach, and others who transgress traditional notions of male and female.

Although Baltimore City and three counties bar such discrimination, in most of the state, there are no local laws that protect transgender people from bias when they seek a job or housing or even patronize a business.

After years of campaigning for, and ultimately winning, marriage rights for same-sex couples, activists for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights say the time has come to focus on the rights of transgender people.

"Our biggest goal is to pass a statewide antidiscrimination law for trans Marylanders," said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, the group which lead the push for same-sex marriage.

Ever since the state legislature passed a law in 2001 barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, activists have pushed for a similar measure to protect gender expression. Protection against transgender discrimination was not a part of the same-sex marriage bill approved last year.

Transgender people can be barred from renting homes, obtaining health care or eating at restaurants in most counties in Maryland, Evans said.

Jenna Fischetti, executive director of TransMaryland, a lobbying group, said state lawmakers came close to approving such a measure last year. Hundreds of transgender activists and their allies flooded Annapolis to lobby for the bill. The bill was voted down 6-5 in a Senate committee, although Fischetti believes it would have been approved by the full Senate.


State Sen. Richard Madaleno, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill in the past, said he plans to introduce it again.

Evans and Fischetti believe that rallying supporters of same-sex marriage, both straight and gay, to the cause will help the transgender bill pass. Since last year's session, Delaware has approved a similar law and the U.S. Senate has approved a measure first introduced nearly two decades ago, that would prevent discrimination in hiring based on either sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The amount of momentum this issue has picked up in other places" is heartening, Madaleno said. "I'm hopeful my colleagues will look around and see the opposition is based on fear and that it is misplaced."

Opponents of the measure chafe at the thought of people with male anatomy using female bathrooms and vice versa.

Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative, religious group that advocates for traditional families, said the bill "trivializes the importance of biological sex by the definition of gender identity."

"We believe sex is an objective biological reality, not something assigned at birth and not something that can be changed at will," said Sprigg, who testified against the state's transgender anti-discrimination bill in the past.


Nationally, there have been some promising signs for transgender activists.

Nearly two decades after the bill was first introduced, the U.S. Senate last week passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of criteria that employers cannot consider when making a hire.

However, House Speaker John Boehner has said he opposes the measure, and it appears unlikely he will let it come up for a vote.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that transgender people were protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bars job discrimination based on sex, race, national origin and religion.

That ruling created "a basic floor of rights for transgender people across the country," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, a national legal support and advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif. Activists say more legal protection is needed.

Fischetti, the head of the state advocacy group, says she was fired from her job in car sales after a co-worker spotted her dressed as a woman after hours. Since then, she has transitioned to dressing and living as a woman all the time.


According to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, more than 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. More than three-quarters of transgender students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade reported being victims of harassment, according to the study, which was based on data from 6,450 participants.

And transgender people can be targets of attacks, Davis said, pointing to the 2011 beating of a transgender woman, Chrissy Lee Polis, in a Rosedale McDonald's.

"Most transgender people live quiet, safe lives, but when people do experience violence, the violence is much more likely to be horrific, to be motivated by hate," Davis said.

Fischetti said that three transgender people have been killed in Baltimore in the past two and a half years.

They, and other victims, will be commemorated at a ceremony at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore on Nov. 20 to mark the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, which commemorates those who died as a result of violence.

It's hard to quantify transgender victims of violence, or just how many people consider themselves transgender, since the U.S. Census allows people to describe themselves only as male or female. The Williams Institute, a think tank run by the University of California School of Law, estimates that 0.5 percent of the population is transgender, Davis said.


An increasing number of people, from celebrities such as Chaz Bono and writer Janet Mock, have come out in recent years as transgender, an umbrella term that includes those who seek to change their bodies through surgery, to those who feel neither purely male nor female.

Cassidy Madison, president of PRISM, Goucher's organization for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender students and allies, is among those who consider themselves gender queer.

Madison, who was born female and has long curly hair, prefers to be referred to by the gender-neutral pronoun zie, rather than he or she.

Madison, 19, is among a growing number of young people who embrace fluid notions of gender. Some who are born female take hormones to deepen their voices and grow facial hair but do not identify as men. Some who are born male wear dresses and makeup, but occasionally grow out their beards.

"It's a spectrum," said Madison, a sophomore from New York state. "It's a big wobbly ball of gender."

Madison said at least a half dozen other Goucher students identity themselves as "non-binary," or identifying as neither fully male nor female. Some use the term agender, third gender or two spirit to describe themselves.


Other transgender people strongly identify with one gender — just not the one assigned at birth.

Baltimore musician and visual artist Rahne Alexander, 44, recalls poring over medical textbooks in the library as a child to learn about transgender people.

She calls her boyhood in a conservative Mormon family a "nightmare state."

"I was forced to live this weird boy life," recalled Alexander. Camping trips with fellow Boy Scouts were awkward and scary.

In college, Alexander began to explore her gender identity and sexuality, although, in the era before the Internet, "I would have to wait weeks or months to get a book."

In 1992, she began to live publicly as a woman. Once she moved to Baltimore 11 years ago, Alexander, who is attracted to women, felt embraced by the lesbian community.


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She and her partner, Kristen Anchor, are two-thirds of the band the Degenerettes and are among the organizers of the Charm City Kitty Show, a performance series that, according to its website, strives to "celebrate creative expression among lesbian, dyke, bisexual, transgender, transsexual and genderqueer individuals as well as our allies."

She hopes that the increased visibility of transgender people will spark a broader discussion on the nature of gender.

"Maybe gender is best classified as an emotion," Alexander said. "It has real world consequences, but so do anger, depression, happiness."

If you go


The First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, 12 W. Franklin Street, will host a Transgender Day of Remembrance, from 6-8 p.m. Nov. 20. On Nov. 23, the church will host a Transgender Day of Community from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.