" ... shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
— Martin Luther King Jr., 1963 letter from prison
Recent laws extending non-discrimination protections to transgender individuals have increased the public discourse on this topic, resulting in a cacophony of ignorant and demoralizing remarks that perpetuate the marginalization of this already sidelined population.
Senate Bill 212, the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014, signed into law last week by Gov. Martin O'Malley, provides transgender people protection against discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. A petition drive aimed at putting a referendum on the ballot to overturn SB 212 refers to it as the "Bathroom Bill." The logo for this campaign features a blue male figure climbing a bathroom stall door to peer over at a red female figure — implying party affiliation as much as sex differentiation, perversion and criminality. This message mirrors a similar campaign waged against protections for transgender students in California this year that failed to collect enough signatures to place a referendum before voters.
The problem with, and the genius behind, this lowest-common-denominator debate is that it is reductionist; it further demoralizes an already marginalized population. Even proponents of transgender rights find themselves defending the completely baseless "bathroom" allegations, causing the real issues to be ignored.
Estimates put the number of transgender individuals in the U.S. between 6 and 15 million people. Though frequently coupled with the lesbian, gay and bisexual struggle for equality, gender and sexuality are two completely different things. Many transgender people have been gender non-conforming since they were toddlers, facing abuse and rejection for just as long. Our consistent assertion that gender identity is behavior based as opposed to an immutable characteristic most clearly shows that we do not know what it feels like to be a constant target for humiliation and worse.
Transgender individuals face pervasive discrimination and abuse on a daily basis. According to a 2011 nationwide survey, gender non-conforming people are frequently victims of harassment, physical assault and sexual assault. And often the perpetrators of this violence are those who are supposed to protect them, such as teachers, doctors, government workers and police. Due to discrimination, rates of transgender unemployment, poverty and homelessness are also high. This group faces rejection from society at every turn and frequently from their own families as well. The most chilling statistic: 41 percent of transgender individuals attempt suicide, compared to 1.6 percent in the general population, according to the survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Rates of attempted suicide are even higher with each adverse life outcome. No person would face this level of abuse by choice.
SB 212 offers transgender individuals a small bit of recourse when faced with discrimination that threatens their most basic needs for safety and well-being. This law will help people obtain work, shelter and yes, it will allow them to use the restroom that most closely matches how they look, making it safer for them to use public facilities.
In opposing these very basic protections for transgender individuals — a group that suffers arguably the harshest discrimination and violence of any group in the U.S. — we are saying that these individuals should continue to suffer either because we feel hatred toward them, or just so that the rest of us can remain comfortable in our ignorance. In the successful segregation of any group, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, the latter is worse.
The United States, and industrialized nations throughout the world, have recent histories of incremental progress toward equality and civil rights recognition for all citizens. Women, African Americans, immigrants and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people, among others, have struggled to gain varying levels of equality and legal protections, all while being subjected to public scorn. The arguments in opposition to this progress have echoed the same falsehoods for decades: Disenfranchised people are immoral, unnatural, and their equality is somehow a threat to those already enjoying societal respect.
Debating whether any person is unworthy of protections that contribute to their basic safety and security is shameful enough, but mischaracterizing your target as perverse and criminal in order to deny them fundamental rights is truly the lowest common denominator. One thing we all should be able to agree on is that it is wrong to subject people to harassment, assault and violence, no matter what, and that protection from such injustices is a basic human right.
Lindsey S. Etheridge is a masters in social work candidate at the University of Southern California School of Social Work and an LGBT rights activist. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.