A matter of equality

Howard County's passage of a law last week banning discrimination against transgender people marks another significant step toward full equality for all Marylanders and it sends a strong message that the county will protect its residents' rights regardless of their sexual or gender orientation. We hope advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community can build on that success to extend such protections to all Maryland residents under legislation expected to be taken up when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

The Howard County law prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, law enforcement and public accommodations against people whose gender identity differs from their sex at birth. The county's anti-discrimination statute already made it illegal to discriminate against lesbians, gays and bisexuals. Then came the horrific, widely-publicized attack in April on a transgender woman, Chrissy Lee Polis, at a Rosedale McDonald's. That prompted advocates in Howard to seek an expansion of their county's anti-discrimination law to specifically include transgender people. (Ms. Polis was arrested last week after an argument with a police officer that was unrelated to the McDonald's assault.)

A weaker piece of legislation that didn't protect transgender people's access to public accommodations passed the state House of Delegates this year but failed in the Senate. That left Montgomery County and Baltimore City as the only two jurisdictions in the state that made discrimination based on gender orientation a violation of the law (the District of Columbia has enacted a similar statute).

It's certainly true that state-wide legislation is needed on this matter. Some counties would likely be little inclined to pass local ordinances protecting transgender people, and basic legal protections should not change when one crosses a county line. Nonetheless, the actions by the Howard County Council were important because local actions can often help build momentum for difficult issues in the state legislature.

It is baffling, for that reason, that Baltimore County, where the attack on Ms. Polis took place, has not taken up similar legislation. Even if county officials think the issue is best handled by the General Assembly, they should feel a moral duty to go on record in opposition to the kind of bigotry that led to that despicable beating. State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger made an important statement in successfully prosecuting the assault as a hate crime, but that is not enough.

Opponents of anti-discrimination laws that include gender orientation often make the argument that the public accommodations provisions of such statutes could allow transgender men access to women's public restrooms. It was just such a spark that apparently set off the violent confrontation in which Ms. Polis was kicked and beaten by two female attackers after she attempted to use the bathroom at McDonald's even though there's no evidence that she posed any threat whatsoever to them.

Ultimately, it's quite possible that passage of a measure aimed specifically at protecting the rights of transgender people actually would bring greater clarity to the law in such situations. Fifty years ago many of the same arguments against equal rights to public accommodations for transgender people were used to justify not only racially segregated bathrooms but lunch counters, bus stations, hotel rooms and even drinking fountains. Today, the fears that inspired such blatant injustices seem absurd, but in their impact on individuals they were no different than those that many transgender people still confront on a daily basis.

Public restrooms are intimately associated with notions of personal privacy and modesty, and we don't pretend to have definitive answers to all the concerns raised by this emotion-laden issue, whose implications society is clearly still in the process of working through. What we can say with certainty is that such considerations can no more be a justification for discrimination than any other difference between people. That's reason enough for state lawmakers to act decisively to ensure that all Maryland citizens are protected equally under the law.