Transgender bill stirs fear, controversy in Baltimore County

Council vote on controversial anti-discrimination measure set for Tuesday

  • Jenna Fischetti, a transgender woman, says that safety is a constant concern for transgender people, and that the bathroom debate is a distraction.
Jenna Fischetti, a transgender woman, says that safety is a… (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
February 19, 2012|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

Jenna Fischetti picks a seat at a Baltimore County Starbucks where she can see who's coming and going. As a transgender woman, the 47-year-old is always on guard.

"My head's on the swivel," said Fischetti, a freckled brunette.

When she slips into a public restroom, she tries not to talk. If she makes eye contact with other women, she smiles and nods. For Fischetti, using the bathroom is just one small part of a daily struggle for social acceptance. She says she lost her job after she began living as a woman. She can tick off a list of women like her who've been attacked — even killed — because of who they are.

Still, the issue of whether transgender people should use the men's or women's bathroom has become a dominant issue as Baltimore County and state lawmakers weigh bans on gender identity discrimination. In recent weeks, County Council members have heard hours of emotional testimony, and opponents have said they fear men dressed as women would sexually assault females in bathrooms, a common argument against such legislation.

The council is poised to pass the bill Tuesday, but may strip it of protections for people using public restrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms. A state measure that failed last year did not include protections for public accommodations, though there's a new push against transgender discrimination in the General Assembly this year.

An incident in Baltimore County last April pushed the issue into the national spotlight, when Chrissy Lee Polis, a 22-year-old transgender woman, was attacked as she tried to use the women's restroom at a Rosedale McDonald's. The assault was caught on a cellphone camera and seen by millions on YouTube.

Fischetti says that safety is a constant concern for transgender people, and that the bathroom debate is a distraction.

Critics disagree. Anita Schatz, a 59-year-old retired school secretary who lives in the county, was first to speak at a council meeting last month. She said she was raped more than 40 years ago and that she feared women would be sexually assaulted in restrooms.

Schatz, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the anti-discrimination bill, adds that her fears go beyond the bathroom. She's more worried, she said, about the kind of world her granddaughters face.

"We just don't want them turning our children into what they are," she said. "It has to do with morals because parents have a right to raise their children the way they want."

Polis, now 23, said she believes transgender people have been targeted.

"First it was blacks," she said. "And they couldn't stand black people. Now it's gay people. What's it gonna be next, handicapped people? They find something to pick at."

'Not a bathroom bill'

Catonsville Democrat Tom Quirk was driven to introduce the bill after hearing the stories of parents who say their transgender children have faced bullying and harassment.

He said critics have spread misinformation. After some Baltimore County opponents of the legislation spread rumors that four women were raped in Montgomery County bathrooms because transgender anti-discrimination laws emboldened predators, that county's police chief wrote a letter saying that was not true.

"The opposition to this bill often talks about everything except for what this bill is about," Quirk said. "If the opposition wants to be honest about their concerns, I think they first have to admit to themselves and publicly that they're OK with discrimination. …This is an anti-discrimination bill. This is not a bathroom bill."

Baltimore County's bill would add both gender identity and sexual orientation to the county's existing human relations laws. Those rules prohibit discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations based on race, religion and other characteristics.

Nationwide, more than 160 cities and counties have laws banning transgender discrimination, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocacy organization. So do 16 states and Washington, D.C.

In Maryland, Montgomery County, Howard County and Baltimore City have laws that ban discrimination against transgender people. Howard County's law passed last year.

In Baltimore County, three Democratic council members have joined Quirk in sponsoring the bill: Chairwoman Vicki Almond of Reisterstown, Cathy Bevins of Middle River, and Kenneth Oliver of Randallstown.

The issue has been grueling for the whole council, said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican.

"Every time there's a public hearing on this, every time there's testimony, you leave physically exhausted," Marks said. "Even though you're only listening, it's a very draining experience. It's one of those issues that's emotionally very raw on both sides."

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