The event at the Rosedale, Md., McDonald’s on Monday evening, April 25, was both a vigil in support of Chrissy Lee Polis – a trans woman brutally beaten there a week earlier as she exited the women’s room – and a sizeable community rally to declare to our neighbors that we demand equal treatment under the law and will no longer tolerate violence or discrimination. This diptych was mirrored by events this month that showcased the community’s political power in moving a gender identity antidiscrimination bill through five votes, including a rebirth in the Rules Committee graveyard, only to see it die by being tabled on the last day of session.
The Senate president, who had first declared the bill dead and then explained that he considered it ”anti-family,” had those beliefs challenged in Rosedale by not only the victim’s mother and grandmother, but by her extensive transgender family. This was a teachable moment for our legislators, born of tragedy but serving to galvanize a movement.
In a profound irony, the assault on Polis occurred exactly one week after the end of the legislative session, the day the gender identity bill, shorn of its usual public accommodations protections, died. Protecting the transgender and gender-non-conforming communities from discrimination in the public sphere was simply too much for many delegates to seriously consider. The sponsor, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D), was reduced to removing those provisions.
Apparently the delegates believed we didn’t need those protections, but the events of April 18 made the need crystal clear. Pena-Melnyk, in a letter to her colleagues demanding a reintroduction of a bill including public accommodations protections (and including a link to the video of Polis’s horrific beating), stated, ”This attack, which took place in District 8, has been broadcast all over the national news, and the video has gone viral, bringing shame to the State of Maryland for allowing such things to take place…. It is time to rectify the wrong that has been done to transgender citizens of our State.”
That video shows Vicky Thoms, an older woman, risking her life to protect Chrissy. Maybe her actions will encourage our elected officials to show similar bravery and decency.
We know that laws do not often directly prevent violence. We choose to not be violent because of our conscience, our internal moral compass. The law orders our society and encourages the common morality, as well as protecting us from those who violate that commonweal. This attack would still have occurred had H.B. 235 passed on April 11, and it would have occurred had a comprehensive bill been passed. But in the political dialectic, the creation of laws influences a society’s conception of itself, educating and channeling basic human decency for the betterment of all.
The two girls charged with the crime are in dire need of an education. Clearly they know nothing of sex and gender, and have been taught that violence is acceptable. Maybe they were taught by their parents, or church or peers. The right-wing fundamentalist opposition to any protections for gender nonconforming individuals gets spewed into the pews of our state’s churches, as well as the floor of the House of Delegates.
We are witnessing a perfect storm in Maryland this month – the failure of two long-sought bills to improve the lives of the LGBT community, the crisis at the state’s leading civil rights organization, Equality Maryland, and the assault on Chrissy Polis. Unlike past years, however, the trans community is now taking its place among the others, speaking in one voice, persuasively, to our elected officials, and demanding equal justice under the law, and an honored place in our communities alongside our fellow human beings.
Dana Beyer, M.D., a retired eye surgeon, is a co-author of ”The Dallas Principles” and an advocate for transgender equality.