Keeping Your Eye on the Prize: Maryland Today Legally Embraces Its Transgender Residents

Today, October 1, the Maryland transgender anti-discrimination law goes into effect, making this state the 18th in the country, along with Puerto Rico and D.C., to offer similar protections. And in two weeks, I will be honored with induction in the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame, for my work on this law and the three county anti-discrimination laws. Therein lies a story on the joys and sorrows of civil rights advocacy.

This award is not just an appreciation of my efforts over the past decade, but a recognition that the trans community is worthy of full inclusion and equal opportunity. When I first began lobbying for the county and state anti-discrimination bills, in association with a number of gay and straight colleagues, we did so in a far different culture than exists today. My associates put their professional careers and reputations on the line, were attacked and targeted with hate mail and death threats, and in some cases paid a terrible political price. When I joined the staff of the Montgomery County Council in 2006, there were those in county government who wanted my job offer rescinded. After I got to work they and others tried to have me fired. And when that failed efforts were made to have me removed with trumped-up ethics charges, involving a nighttime third-rate burglary of my computer and other violations of my constitutional rights.

My most important contribution to the cause? My tenacity, and my unwillingness to be beaten down. I didn't take it personally, and my boss, Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg, who vigorously sponsored the county bill, protected me from the some of the worst of the personal attacks. Suffice it to say that some people and organizations who proudly proclaim themselves as social progressives were anything but.

Nationally, the trans community had gone along with gay advocacy campaigns earlier in the decade when homophobia was still pretty intense. We were all just sexual minorities to the reactionaries, and most antidiscrimination bills included gender identity. But by the beginning of the second Bush administration those reactionaries were mobilizing in my county because of its proximity to D.C. The 2007 public debate over trans inclusion in the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), and the introduction of the county bill during my first year as a Council staffer, led to a situation where we could no longer fly under the radar.

The county bill was passed unanimously and quickly signed by our County Executive, Ike Leggett, but the backlash began almost immediately, with talk of predators stalking the county bathrooms and email assaults on the Councilmembers and staffers. My children were targeted, and we called in the FBI. The worse it got, the more often our elected officials spoke out. The LGBT community mounted a response, and the referendum was killed in the state's highest court by the skill of our ally, Jonathan Shurberg. At the end of the day, perseverance had paid off, politicians found their voice, and a willingness to stand on principle in spite of the perceived risk, and the county came around very quickly. Watching people evolve is, in some respects, even more satisfying than having them on your side from the start.

In spite of that big county win, the state bill stalled year after year, primarily because the gay community prioritized relationship recognition. I've said for years that was to be expected, and not a cause for anger or resentment, as we're all motivated by self-interest. People should just own up to it, and not claim credit for work they either didn't do, or did very casually and poorly. With the crisis inside Equality Maryland following the marriage equality failure of 2011, Gender Rights Maryland was created by Sharon Brackett to put the trans community in the driver's seat.

That year, we in Maryland were under attack by community outsiders because the bill did not include public accommodations. People with no skin in the game viciously harassed our legislative sponsors, causing us terrible difficulty in maintaining our coalition allies and legislative supporters.

While we were still playing second fiddle to marriage, but continuing to educate the senators and delegates about the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation, we turned our attention back to the counties, and building on the 2007 success in Montgomery County extended the protections to Howard and Baltimore counties. We stared down a referendum in Baltimore County, teaching us that we would be much better off not mounting a "Decline to Sign" campaign, which had backfired in Montgomery and then statewide with the Dream Act. And in Annapolis we pushed forward with the inside political work, having long passed the time when grassroots action was needed. At that point such action had already become counterproductive, but the state's reconstituted equality group decided it would pursue the same strategy anyway, in spite of the resistance of the party leadership and those whose votes we needed to finally get the bill out of committee.

We didn't give up. We continued to cultivate the relationships we needed to get our votes. We ran the operation like a military campaign, not a support group. One lesson to be learned for future civil rights campaigns -- the survival of any given organization, particularly when it has only one tool at its disposal, is not worth risking the prize. Advocates too often act in their own personal interest, and that of their associated organizations, rather than pursuing the mission demanded by the community.

Finally, when the gay agenda was completed in 2012, there was room for the trans community, and the result of years of relationship building occurred this year. Those relationships, developed by Darrell Carrington, Jon Shurberg, Marc McLaurin, Jamie Raskin and others, were built on shared life experiences, not just demands for equality. They were the result of dinners and deals and edification, sometimes from the least expected direction. One instance that stands out was a personal discussion I had with the mother of a trans boy in the presence of a delegate who had serious issues with the bill. Dozens of hours of philosophical debate with the delegate, though intellectually fascinating, had had little impact, but that one personal narrative made all the difference. Even the Senate President admitted to having been surprised by how much he learned watching Chaz Bono on The Letterman Show.

In spite of these accomplishments, there are those in the LGBT community who try to undermine us every opportunity they get. No matter -- I just remember what Bobby Kennedy, in one of the greatest civil rights speeches of all time, said, speaking of political timidity: "Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change."

No matter how marginalized you are, or how worthless people make you feel, keep showing up, and bring value to your community. Keep your eye on the prize, and wondrous things may result.