Activists turn focus to transgender rights

Advocates in Maryland back legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity

  • Kai Bacharach, photographed here on campus, began to transition to a male identity when he was accepted by Goucher College
Kai Bacharach, photographed here on campus, began to transition… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
November 13, 2013|By Julie Scharper

The first time Kai Bacharach uttered his name — his male name, the one he chose for himself — was in the spring, at an event for students accepted to Goucher.

For the first 18 years of life, Bacharach used the female name his parents bestowed at birth.

But when it came time to start college this year, Bacharach decided to slough off an identity that never felt true. His professors, resident advisers and classmates all know him as Kai, a man.

"It makes going back to see my family weird," said Bacharach, a Baltimore native who declined to reveal his birth name. "They're starting to call me Kai, but the pronouns will take a while."

And, Bacharach says, his parents worry about his future.

Maryland, like 34 other states, lacks laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity — laws that would protect transgender people, such as Bacharach, and others who transgress traditional notions of male and female.

Although Baltimore City and three counties bar such discrimination, in most of the state, there are no local laws that protect transgender people from bias when they seek a job or housing or even patronize a business.

After years of campaigning for, and ultimately winning, marriage rights for same-sex couples, activists for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights say the time has come to focus on the rights of transgender people.

"Our biggest goal is to pass a statewide antidiscrimination law for trans Marylanders," said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, the group which lead the push for same-sex marriage.

Ever since the state legislature passed a law in 2001 barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, activists have pushed for a similar measure to protect gender expression. Protection against transgender discrimination was not a part of the same-sex marriage bill approved last year.

Transgender people can be barred from renting homes, obtaining health care or eating at restaurants in most counties in Maryland, Evans said.

Jenna Fischetti, executive director of TransMaryland, a lobbying group, said state lawmakers came close to approving such a measure last year. Hundreds of transgender activists and their allies flooded Annapolis to lobby for the bill. The bill was voted down 6-5 in a Senate committee, although Fischetti believes it would have been approved by the full Senate.

State Sen. Richard Madaleno, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill in the past, said he plans to introduce it again.

Evans and Fischetti believe that rallying supporters of same-sex marriage, both straight and gay, to the cause will help the transgender bill pass. Since last year's session, Delaware has approved a similar law and the U.S. Senate has approved a measure first introduced nearly two decades ago, that would prevent discrimination in hiring based on either sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The amount of momentum this issue has picked up in other places" is heartening, Madaleno said. "I'm hopeful my colleagues will look around and see the opposition is based on fear and that it is misplaced."

Opponents of the measure chafe at the thought of people with male anatomy using female bathrooms and vice versa.

Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative, religious group that advocates for traditional families, said the bill "trivializes the importance of biological sex by the definition of gender identity."

"We believe sex is an objective biological reality, not something assigned at birth and not something that can be changed at will," said Sprigg, who testified against the state's transgender anti-discrimination bill in the past.

Nationally, there have been some promising signs for transgender activists.

Nearly two decades after the bill was first introduced, the U.S. Senate last week passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of criteria that employers cannot consider when making a hire.

However, House Speaker John Boehner has said he opposes the measure, and it appears unlikely he will let it come up for a vote.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that transgender people were protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bars job discrimination based on sex, race, national origin and religion.

That ruling created "a basic floor of rights for transgender people across the country," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, a national legal support and advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif. Activists say more legal protection is needed.

Fischetti, the head of the state advocacy group, says she was fired from her job in car sales after a co-worker spotted her dressed as a woman after hours. Since then, she has transitioned to dressing and living as a woman all the time.

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