Transgender advocates see McDonald's beating as a turning point

School kids call Catherine Hyde's teenage daughter "freak" and "pervert," or "homo." She's forced to change for gym in a closet and use the teacher's restroom.

Hyde knows her daughter, who was born male, has had it easy in a world where transgender people often lose their jobs, go homeless and suffer beatings.

Yet after a brutal assault at a Rosedale McDonald's on another young transgender woman, she sees hope. Hyde, and others in Maryland who've in the past failed to persuade lawmakers to enact a law designed to protect transgender people, believe the attack and the attention it's drawn to the state will finally spur action.

"What does it take to move the legislature?" Hyde says. "What does it take that we not discriminate against people who were made that way by God? Lawmakers won't stand up and do what's right. And it's unforgivable in my opinion."

Since two teenagers beat Chrissy Lee Polis on April 18, a brawl apparently incited by her using the women's restroom, millions around the world have watched the punches and kicks online in a video shot by a McDonald's employee. By the thousands these viewers have signed petitions, planned rallies and turned a spotlight on the plight of transgender people.

One activist writing in London's The Guardian newspaper called the McDonald's attack the transgender community's Stonewall — equating what happened in Baltimore County with the 1969 riot outside a Greenwich Village gay bar that catapulted the quest for homosexual rights from a fringe effort into a national movement.

"If last week's incident doesn't show we have prejudices and preconceived notions, I don't know what will," says Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, the Prince Georges County Democrat who has repeatedly sponsored a bill that would protect Maryland's transgender people from discrimination where they live and work. "This has put us to shame."

In the decade since Minnesota became the first to do it, 12 more states and the District of Columbia have passed some sort of anti-discrimination law that applies to transgender people, those born one gender who better identify with the other. An additional 134 cities and counties — including Baltimore City and Montgomery County — have followed suit.

Mara Keisling, executive director for the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, notes that in 2001, 4 percent of transgender people lived under the protection of anti-discrimination laws. Now, it's 41 percent.

But she also points to sobering statistics identified in her organization's new report on the realities of transgender life in the United States. Forty-one percent of transgender people surveyed had attempted suicide. Seventy-nine percent reported harassment in school while 90 percent were unfairly treated at work. Like Chrissy Lee Polis, 53 percent said they had been disrespected in public places like hotels and restaurants.

Compared to the overall population, the transgender pool had four times the rate of homelessness and twice the rate of unemployment.

Keisling believes a first step to making life easier for transgender people is to acknowledge them as a worthy protected class.

"We go to the same museums, the same synagogues, the same mosques and the same McDonald's," she says. "People need to understand that transgender people are not only just like them, they are them."

This year in Annapolis, Pena-Melnyk's bill got further than ever before, winning approval in the House of Delegates.

Unlike earlier versions of the bill, this one didn't include public accommodation protections that could help transgender people from being discriminated against in restaurants and public places. That helped some wavering legislators warm to it but also prompted a faction of the transgender community to withdraw support.

Still, national advocates and Equality Maryland rallied behind the bill, celebrating as it passed the House only to see it killed on the last day of the legislative session. Pena-Melnyk, who says she had the votes for passage, blames Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who had called her bill "anti-family" for convincing senators to boot it back to committee in a 27-20 vote.

"I was disgusted," Pena-Melnyk says. "As legislators you're supposed to make Maryland better, and you're supposed to put your prejudices aside."

While the bill was being debated on the House floor, one delegate alluded to Cpl. Klinger, a comic-relief character from the TV show "M*A*S*H" known for wearing women's clothes while trying to get a psychiatric discharge from the Army. The delegate wanted to know if his colleagues wanted Klinger leading a day care center.

Another delegate assumed a jokey tone as he launched into a story of being in a men's restroom and smelling a whiff of perfume just before he saw a "6 foot 2 woman dressed to the nines" hike up her dress to use the urinal. So obviously women "should be appalled" by the bill, he concluded.

Miller told Maryland Public Television that senators didn't want to hire "people with male sexual organs who wear a dress to serve as receptionists."

National transgender rights advocates know that anti-discrimination bills have a way of becoming mired in fears about who's using which toilet.

"Opponents always try to call it 'the bathroom bill,'" Keisling says. She thinks that the comments of opponents in Annapolis illustrate the intolerance transgender people encounter every day.

"I don't know why [Miller is] checking the sex organs of his receptionist," she says. "We're trying to talk about really serious horrendous stuff that ruins people's lives."

Miller takes offense at Pena-Melnyk's allegation that he orchestrated the killing of the bill.

"It's nonsense. Tell this young delegate to focus on Prince Georges County," he said. "Tell her to start by making it a law where she lives and not forcing it on the Eastern shore and Western Maryland and everywhere else."

Though he's a Democrat representing Baltimore County and calls the McDonald's violence "appalling," Del. Joseph J. Minnick, who told his colleagues about his bathroom encounter with a cross-dresser, remains opposed to the bill. He insists the bill would give transgender people "special privileges."

"Job discrimination?" says Minnick, who owns a bar in Dundalk. "There's job discrimination in all walks of life. Depending what kind of job they're applying for, I want to be able to say, 'I don't want you working for me.' "

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, another Democrat who represents Baltimore County, supported the bill in committee but voted with the majority to deny it a vote by the full Senate.

He says there was little point wasting time on a lost cause.

"There was no question the votes were not there," Zirkin says. "You can't hold up the works for one piece of legislation and that's exactly what would have happened. Anyone who says that's not the case respectfully doesn't know what happened."

Zirkin believes Maryland is ready to protect transgender people. He's just not sure when lawmakers in Annapolis will be.

"It's an imperfect democracy," he says. "You just have to keep coming back and chipping away until you get it through. Things that are big and important usually take time."

But after the Rosedale incident, transgender advocates say they sense a shift in public sentiment.

Not only has the McDonald's video been watched millions of times, nearly every major news organization has covered it. More than a hundred thousand people signed an online petition urging McDonald's to take action against employees that didn't help Chrissy Lee Polis and hundreds more people are planning benefits and rallies in different cities across the United States.

Writing in The Guardian last week, transgender activist Jane Fae wrote of "a growing sense of trans militancy, fueled by a sense that we are at the back of the line when it comes to basic human rights."

"We may not have our rights yet, but since [the Rosedale beating] there is a new determination in the air," she wrote. "There was before Rosedale — and now there is after Rosedale."