These last few years will go down as a time when Marylanders took steps to recognize the humanity of those who have too often been marginalized. In 2011, the General Assembly voted to stop penalizing children whose parents brought them to the United States illegally when it came time for them to go to college, an important gesture in the nation's polarized immigration debate. In 2012, lawmakers extended equal rights to same-sex couples who wanted to marry. And in 2014, legislators reached out to perhaps the most marginalized group of all, those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, by passing the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, which Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to sign this month.
What was even more heartening than the action by the legislature and the governor was the willingness of voters to look beyond scare tactics from opponents and validate both Maryland's Dream Act and marriage equality laws at the ballot. Now the same group that so badly misread the will of the people in petitioning those two laws to referendum is again asking Marylanders to cast a vote for the cause of discrimination and repeal the protections for transgender people. We doubt the voters will be any better disposed to their efforts this time around.
The arguments advanced by Del. Neil Parrott and others who are organizing the petition drive would seem juvenile in a 3rd grade classroom. Rather than addressing the very real need to protect transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and other matters, they are trying to convince the public that this bill will lead to a rash of men putting on dresses and going into public bathrooms to ogle women.
It's difficult to know where to start in explaining why this argument is ridiculous, and it's somewhat embarrassing for our state that we should have to do so. But here goes.
First, it takes more than putting on a dress to be covered by this law. It requires that a person exhibit "consistent and uniform assertion" of their gender identity or present evidence that the gender identity is "sincerely held as part of the person's core identity." To caricature this as a bill about men in dresses is to demean the very real and often very difficult experiences of those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Second, the misconduct Mr. Parrott and others predict, including indecent exposure and sexual assault, remains illegal no matter the gender or gender identity of the person committing it.
Third, transgender people do, in fact, go to the bathroom now. Usually, they use the bathroom with which they identify, and the one with which the public most readily identifies them. Given that, by conservative estimates, half of one percent of the population is transgender, chances are that Mr. Parrott has already been in a bathroom with a transgender person; he just didn't realize it.
Fourth, it's not as if this is some new and untested idea. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., already have similar laws, and it has not led to a rash of peeping Toms. Closer to home, four of Maryland's largest jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties — have laws protecting against discrimination based on gender identity. Howard County's law has been in effect since 2011. Since then, Howard County police have recorded not a single incident like the ones opponents of this legislation are warning of.
Finally, all this focus on who relieves themselves where obscures a tragic legacy of violence, discrimination and alienation transgender people have experienced simply as a consequence of being who they are. A 2011 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 81 percent of transgender Marylanders surveyed had experienced harassment at school and 71 percent had at work. Forty-two percent experienced an adverse job action — such as being fired or denied a promotion — because of their gender identity. And 54 percent had been verbally harassed or disrespected in a public place such as a restaurant, hotel or government agency. And that's not to speak of those who have experienced physical violence. Chrissy Lee Polis, who was beaten in a Rosedale McDonald's in 2011, is Maryland's most famous victim of anti-transgender violence, but she is hardly alone.
We would like to think that the petitioners won't be able to find 55,736 people who would be willing to sign on to their effort. But if they do, we have every confidence that the majority of voters will do just what they did when the Dream Act and marriage equality were petitioned to the ballot, and that is to reaffirm that we believe in the fundamental human rights of everyone who calls Maryland home.
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