Tuesday night, the Baltimore County Council has a chance to send a powerful message about equality and fairness to all Marylanders when it votes on a bill to extend the county's anti-discrimination laws to cover transgender people. In the county where transgender woman Chrissy Lee Polis was savagely beaten in a McDonald's because of her gender identity, this should be a no-brainer. But it has instead become embroiled in an emotionally driven but largely irrelevant debate over access to public restrooms. Council members must resist such extraneous distractions and pass the measure without amendments that would weaken its effect.
Amid protest from vocal activists, some council members are seeking to exclude restrooms and locker rooms from the public accommodations provision of the bill proposed by Councilman Tom Quirk of Catonsville. That is not germane to the problem of violence against transgender people. Instead, it involves a wholly imagined threat to women from male voyeurs gaining access to female restrooms by impersonating the opposite sex — a scenario so absurdly unlikely that there has been no documented case of such a crime ever being committed in Maryland.
Last year, the Montgomery County police chief went out of his way to publicly denounce rumors that assaults against women had taken place in the county's public bathrooms after an anti-discrimination law protecting transgender people was approved there. Baltimore City and Howard County have similar laws on their books, as does the District of Columbia, and in none of those places have critics' fears come to pass.
The idea that Baltimore County would suddenly be inundated with cross-dressing peeping Toms intent on insinuating themselves into women's bathrooms to commit crimes would be almost comical if the stakes for sexual and gender equality weren't so high. Transgender people routinely live in fear of being humiliated or even physically assaulted because of their gender identity.
If a man commits a crime in a women's bathroom — or vice versa — the solution is to arrest the perpetrator and put him or her in jail, not take away the right of transgender people to use the facility that is appropriate for everyone else of the gender with which they identify.
Moreover, one wonders where County Council members think that transgender people go to the bathroom now. Surely they can't imagine that if they leave these provisions out, transgender people will simply never enter a public restroom. Rather, the implication of the proffered amendment is that those who were born male but who live as (and look like) women should use the men's room, and those who were born women but look like men should use the women's room. And they think that won't make anyone uncomfortable?
That this issue is driving the debate in Baltimore County is particularly ironic, given that the assault on Ms. Polis was committed after she attempted to use the women's bathroom.
A video of that attack taken by a McDonald's employee was later seen by hundreds of thousands of people on YouTube and prompted a much-needed national conversation about violence against transgender people. Ever since, county officials have been under pressure to denounce such crimes and ensure the perpetrators are punished. It would be a tragic setback for the county as well as for the cause of equal rights for them to back off that commitment now.