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Ruling Inspires New Hope For Transgender People

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

To Allyson Robinson, it means accompanying her young children to public restrooms in Montgomery County without worrying that someone will call the police.

For Colleen Fay, it brings the hope that the next time she applies for a driver's license she won't be badgered about her previous life as a man.

And for Chloe Schwenke, it means other people like her will be able to enjoy the job security she has found in her international development work in the District.

With the decision by Maryland's highest court last week to block a referendum petition, Montgomery County's law banning discrimination against transgender people takes effect immediately.

The measure, passed by the County Council last year, prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. It was to take effect in February but was put on hold when some religious and conservative groups launched a petition drive.

The court's ruling was an important political and symbolic victory for gay and transgender rights advocates. Council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), the bill's main sponsor, and Equality Maryland, the group that led the legal challenge, hosted a celebration Friday night at Jackie's Restaurant in Silver Spring.

But in interviews after the court's decision, transgender people throughout the Washington region said Montgomery's new law would be most meaningful in making the mundane details of day-to-day life a little bit easier. And they hope that it spurs action in neighboring jurisdictions.

"So I can walk into the office, wear a skirt and not be quite so afraid," said Fay, a transgender woman who lives in Prince George's County. "The little tiny things in life that most of the rest of humanity take for granted, we look at and say, 'That could be a hurdle as tall as the Empire State Building.' "

Opponents of the law, including some parents and religious groups, gathered more than 25,000 signatures to put the measure to a vote. They worried that the law was written so broadly that it could allow a cross-dressing man, for instance, to gain access to locker rooms at health clubs. They also unsuccessfully tried to add exceptions to the law for hiring by religious institutions and schools. To opponents, the court's decision disenfranchised the thousands of people who signed petitions.

But for transgender women such as Robinson, the County Council's passage of the law was a key reason she chose to live in Montgomery when she moved to the area this year from Texas to take a job at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and transgender civil rights organization.

Before settling on a townhouse in Gaithersburg, Robinson and her family sought to rent an apartment. She worried, unnecessarily as it turned out, that the landlord would want to pull out of the lease upon meeting her. Until the law took effect this week, Robinson said, the landlord could have rejected her application because she is a transgender person.

In the past, Robinson has also worried about taking her four young children to public restrooms at restaurants, because she fears that someone will identify her as a transgender woman and call security.

"You find yourself on guard, and mentally and emotionally prepared for that," Robinson said. "You just never know. For many of us, this kind of thing we fear happens rarely; for others it happens constantly, and the fear of it is very real."

Montgomery followed 13 states, the District and more than 100 other local jurisdictions in passing protections for transgender individuals. Based on clinical and surgical reports, advocacy groups say that as many as 2,000 transgender people live in Montgomery.

In court, the two sides argued technicalities over deadlines and the number of signatures needed to put the law to a vote. The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court ruling that had sided with the law's opponents.

Fay said she hoped the media attention to Montgomery's action -- and the court's decision -- would embolden her county to follow and raise awareness to help demystify transgender people.

"It's invisibility that leads to fears and the icky factor that makes some people react by saying, 'I don't want to deal with that,' " said Fay, arts editor for WAMU radio's Metro Connection, a show she helped launch as Peter Fay in 1995.

In December, when Fay moved back to Maryland from the District after many years, her old driver's license information identified her as male. Fay said she was hassled by a motor vehicle clerk, who refused to change the designation to female.

Schwenke, an ethicist who works in international development, said she was nervous about approaching her employer about her planned transition but relieved to find her fears unfounded. Her office is in Northwest Washington, so she was protected by the District's anti-discrimination law.

"It makes an enormous difference," Schwenke said of the protections. "I was concerned that people would feel that I'd somehow be less competent or less able."

But the protections did not extend to Diane Schroer, a transgender woman who is pursuing a sex discrimination case against the Library of Congress under the Civil Rights Act in U.S. District Court. Schroer's job offer was rescinded the day after she told her prospective employer that she was undergoing the medical transition to become a woman.

Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, said Schroer's case illustrates why legal protections are necessary. A federal judge is expected to rule in the case soon. "There are people who react in an unthinking way to transgender people," he said.

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