National NOW Foundation Times  >> Spring 2008 >> Article

Overcoming Distortion and Fear on Transgender Rights

By Guest Writer Dana Beyer, M.D., Maryland NOW Action Vice President

Nothing, it seems, causes more controversy than the efforts by victims of discrimination to stand up for their rights. From civil rights struggles to the fight for women's rights and the rights of the LGBT community, opponents of equal justice under the law vilify groups that are demanding not special treatment, but only justice.

The nationwide efforts to pass the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which adds "gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability" to the list of groups protected from hate crimes, is a top priority of NOW and the LGBT community and many national and local groups. But it has also drawn fire from right-wing websites, organizations and agitators bent on sowing hatred and division.

Many communities hear of such attacks and say, "it can't happen here." But it does happen, all too often, especially when forward-thinking elected officials take a stand to put government on the side of justice and equality. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a reputation as one of the most progressive counties in the United States. So it comes as a shock that this county would be the target of a frontal assault by the forces of right-wing religious extremism.

But that's just what happened when word got out last November that the Montgomery County Council had passed a measure prohibiting anti-transgender discrimination, adding the county to the ranks of the 34 percent of the U.S. population covered by transgender-specific laws, including 10 states and the District of Columbia. Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg, a National NOW Board member and former Maryland NOW president, introduced and championed the measure because she agreed it was the right thing to do.

For those on the lower end of the economic scale, transgender discrimination may mean housing difficulties, loss of job or career, and difficulty finding a job. For those on the upper end, fear of discrimination often locks people into undesired relationships and jobs, similar to how the fear of losing health coverage may paralyze those considering divorce or changing jobs. But everyone is affected by hate violence: Four transgender women were murdered in D.C. in 2004.

Liberal Battleground for Reactionary Forces

The 2004 election sparked a campaign by reactionary forces to make Montgomery County the battleground for a hateful agenda, unsupportable County deliberately, announcing that if they could win here, they could win anywhere.

After three years of action, primarily manifested in lawsuit after lawsuit, opponents of LGBT rights gave up trying to influence the local school system's sex-education curriculum. They even, inadvertently, managed to force the development of a new, more comprehensive and up-to-date curriculum which included gender identity for the first time. Their group, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, then morphed into Citizens for Responsible Government and engineered a campaign of fear and hate-mongering against the county because of the new anti-discrimination law.

That law had passed unanimously in November 2007, and was signed by the county executive a week later. The forces of Biblical literalism, however, with support from national groups such as the Internet "news" site worldnetdaily.com, the Concerned Women for America and the Traditional Values Coalition, flooded the Montgomery County Council staff offices with hate mail and phone calls. In this day of bundled long-distance services and free blast emails, it was not a difficult challenge. They went so far as to stage a hoax at a local health club, misrepresented the facts while working to collect signatures to force a referendum on the law, which is currently being held in abeyance, and stormed the council meeting where the law was passed, shouting "Heil, Hitler" to Councilmember Trachtenberg. Their shameless framing of the law, repeatedly challenged by the council, executive and county attorneys, was that this law forced unisex bathrooms on the population, and was a green light for predators and pedophiles to infiltrate the women's bathrooms to rape and murder our daughters and wives.

Unfortunately the overburdened County Board of Elections chose to review the signatures in a cursory manner and certified the petition for a referendum, forcing the activist community to expend time, effort and money to challenge over 30,000 signatures. That process is now in play, with a hearing set in Circuit Court for June 11. We intend to prevail, but everyone should be forewarned by our experience here in liberal Montgomery County that it can, indeed, happen even in your neighborhood.