November 17, 2011 at 9:41 am EDT | by Hilary Howes
Time to dance for transgender rights

Overwhelming majorities of Americans agree that transgender people should have the same general rights and legal protections as others. In a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute completed in August and September, while the “controversy” about Chaz Bono appearing on “Dancing With The Stars” raged in the media, approximately 9-in-10 (89 percent) Americans agree that transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as other Americans. With the American public overwhelmingly supporting us, it’s time to put on our dancing shoes and sway our legislators into passing basic protections.

I’m not suggesting that appearing on DWTS alone changed public opinion. It has taken decades of education, media attention, and a lot of courage by transgender people and our supporters that have brought us to this point where our political “leaders” can be followers of the public will to bring basic civil rights to our marginalized community. While we appreciate the support of this overwhelming majority, we are still at risk in our jobs, housing and the wide range of public accommodations.

The viral YouTube video of Chrissy Polis’ beating in a Rosedale, Md., McDonald’s shocked the world and shamed Marylanders into recommitting to fighting for her civil rights. I’m one of those Marylanders — I stepped up to join the board of the newly formed Gender Rights Maryland. Our governor is another, committing to support a Gender Non-Discrimination Bill this legislative session. As a transsexual woman I am blessed to have had the support of my family and community in my transition, and to work in a creative industry where my unique status is not a problem.

I am called through the social justice teachings of my religion (Catholic) to stand up for the marginalized. As a Catholic it’s reassuring that Catholics show the largest majority of support at 93 percent followed by 90 percent of mainline Protestants and 83 percent of white evangelical Protestants. This reconciles well with my experience that every priest, nun, and bishop to whom I have disclosed has been supportive and welcoming. Although Catholic teaching has no public position on trans people, many in the church hierarchy actively campaign against basic protections that are supported by their parishioners. To pass such protections we will need the support of the church members cited in the survey to counteract the small (but well funded and connected) religious extremists that bring pressure to bear on our legislators.

Even with the public support evident in this survey, the need for basic protections is supported by numerous reports of friends and surveys of transgender population. In fact, the overwhelming support for protections suggests that most people understand the need because they see the discrimination as likely. I hope we can draw on these fair-minded people for support in our legislative mission because the number of transgender people is estimated at only 0.3 percent of adults.

One of the findings of the survey is that two-thirds of Americans agree that they feel well informed about transgender issues and 11 percent say that they have a close friend or family member who is transgender. This survey seems to make it clear that through education and media exposure by those willing to stand up, Americans have been brought to the point where they understand the need for basic protections. The next step is to convince our legislators to follow them and ignore the vocal minorities. Then we will be able to work to make the discrimination itself a thing of the past.

The group Catholics for Equality co-signed in support of this op-ed.

Hilary Howes is a board member of Gender Rights Maryland and has served as a public information officer for Transgender San Francisco and a member/lobbyist for GenderPAC, the National Center for Transgender Equality and Equality Maryland. She lives in Maryland and has been married for 33 years.

  • I really hope this is a sudden turn of events among Catholics in the past year. I was raised in a Catholic family who considered my transition as “mutilation of the temple of God”.

    If we go back to earlier this year, there was bipartisan objection to HB-235. The Democratic objection came from Maryland’s Catholic Democrats. What do you think will make them change their minds next year? Let’s see if the Chrissy Polis beating has some impact.

    Now we have one county in Maryland considering a trans bill with a twist. They are removing “private and personal spaces” from the definition of public accommodations for not just trans, but for everyone.

    What just happened in Massachusetts earlier this week has just set trans rights back and sends a dangerous message to states, including Maryland that it is OK to remove public accommodations from a trans rights bill.

    Again and again, I urge organizations like GRMD and Equality Maryland that where it comes to gender variance, there are actually two subgroups. One for which this is a medical issue and are currently going through prescribed medication with a full commitment to transition and continue their lives in their new identity and the other group for which this is more of a social issue, there is no medical diagnosis and no commitment to transition to the other half of the gender binary.

    Once the GLBT/T community recognizes that there are “two-T’s” and educates the public that way, there may be a better understanding of the specific medical needs of those who need access to segregated public accommodations and how those who are going through this process are not a “danger” to society due to the medications that are being taken.

    I am one of the few people in this movement who is actually trans who understands this difference and feels that trans issues should be legislatively handled as two groups. Gender identity and gender expression should be two definitions, not one and gender identity should require a third party verification of a medical condition as evidenced by a state driver’s license or US passport card.

    Sorry folks, “one size fits all” does not apply here.

  • Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity. Catechism of the Catholic Church

    My Catholic schooling taught me unity of the Spirit. We are all one under Christ.

    But what is to be done about this? Where is the work being had? Where is the leadership?

  • Hilary Howes said it wonderfully: the political climate among the majority of people in this country supports making sure that transgender people have the same rights and protections as anyone else. I would also like to mention, though, that not all of our elected officials feel that same way. They are hesitant to pass legislation that would create equal treatment. We need everyone’s help in making sure the elected officials in their area support equal and fair treatment for all.

    Assuring the same rights and protections is not simply a Civic’s class exercise. The impacts of discrimination are real for transgender people: If you are transgender you can be: fired for no other reasons; evicted for no other reasons; denied credit, kicked out of any restaurant, store, auto repair shop, dentist office, doctors office, and far more for no other reason. This kind of “legalized” discrimination is “a violence” against transgender people. This kind of violence happens to lawyers; doctors; company CEOs; software specialists; college professors; pilots; retired soldiers, sailors, marines; airmen; nurses; EMTs; police officers; and others.

    There are other types of violence against transgender people, too. There’s physical violence. In DC three transgender women were shot at by an off-duty police officer, even after they complained to another officer about his harassing behavior. Another woman was shot by an unknown person in a different incident. Sadly in another incident a transwoman was shot and killed. Violence happens far too frequently and in places one would never expect. Chrissy Polis was simply walking from a bathroom when she was assaulted. Other transgender people have been attacked in emergency rooms – by hospital staff no less.

    There is also spiritual violence – perpetrated by some religious groups and churches that attack who transgender people are rather than recognizing they are just as wonderful as the rest of their congregations. They wrap their bigotry and hatred in the word of God. More and more churches and organizations are not only open but also affirming of transgender people. I applaud groups like Catholics for Equality for publicly supporting and end to the bigotry and stupidity.

    As I said before, ending the violence and discrimination is not a simple civics class exercise with no real consequences. The reality that some transgender people face everyday should be shocking and appalling to anyone. And you can help end it by putting pressure on your elected officials to assure the rights and protections that should already be in place.

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