Transgender advocates see McDonald's beating as a turning point

Rosedale attack could raise support for long-stalled anti-discrimination bill in Maryland, they say

  • Catherine Hyde's daughter, Will Gallucci , who is 17, and student at Marriotts Ridge High School, was born male but lives as a female. Hyde can't understand why Maryland lawmakers have failed to pass laws to protect transgender people.
Catherine Hyde's daughter, Will Gallucci , who is 17,… (Doug Kapustin, Special…)
April 30, 2011|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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