Editors' Note: Guest blogger Dana Beyer, a retired eye surgeon, is a trans activist and co-author of The Dallas Principles. She serves on the boards of the National Center for Transgender Equality and Keshet, the national Jewish LGBT education and outreach organization.
I ended the 2011 Annapolis legislative session conflicted, frustrated that we were not able to push the limited gender identity anti-discrimination bill over its final hurdle on the last day, but exhilarated at the progress we had made to get that far, including accomplishing one legislative feat rarely seen in the statehouse. Still, there had been serious division within the state trans community over the decision to support HB 235 without public accommodations protections, and I wanted to start healing that rift after taking a moment to breathe.
Alas, that breath never came.
Last Friday two events occurred that shook the Maryland trans community. The first, not unexpected, was the firing of Equality Maryland's Executive Director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets. Having worked closely with Morgan on HB 235, I was taken aback by her firing, and the rapidity with which she was cut loose. But, more importantly, that was the day the video of a brutal assault on a trans woman at a McDonalds in northeast Baltimore County went viral, horrifying the national trans community and engendering calls to action.
So act we did, over a holiday weekend during spring break, organizing what was initially intended to be a vigil as the victim appeared severely injured, but what evolved into an upbeat rally of a united community demanding an end to violence and discrimination. A group of us, from both sides of the HB 235 debate, including Caroline Temmermand of the Baltimore Gender Identity support group, Sandy Rawls, director of Trans-United in Baltimore City, Cathy Brennan, a local lesbian activist, Jenna Fischetti, owner of the blog, TransMaryland, and I worked together.
We reached out to the victim, Chrissy Lee Polis and her family. We contacted the McDonald's owner and obtained his full assistance in staging the event. We obtained police approval and support, did a media blast, and invited all the local politicians, both on the county and state levels. We reached out to local faith leaders, and members of African-American groups who were appalled by the racial overtones of the assault. Progressive coalition partners, such as GetEqual, the SCLC of Baltimore, and Planned Parenthood offered to participate.
Having been involved in far too many vigils for murdered trans women over the years, and accepting the general apathy in both the trans and LGBT communities, I expected 30 people to ultimately show up. Instead, 300 did.
Several occurrences were striking. When I arrived an hour early, I noticed the McDonald's had been closed and would be through the following morning. Not a small gesture for a business, and the restaurant sign which proclaimed, "In support of peace," was a nice touch. The restaurant was taken over by a PR firm hired by the corporation, and we were all invited to use the facilities before the event began in a gesture of good will.
The place was overflowing with media, from the local patch correspondents to local television and crews from as far away as DC. The national gay media were in attendance, including Kevin Naff, editor-in-chief of the Blade.
And very quickly our numbers started to rise. Chrissy Lee, who had initially announced she would attend, backed out, but her mother and grandmother were there, basking in the support for their child. Chrissy's friends and neighbors joined us, and expressed their outrage at the assault.
Some really didn't understand what being trans is about, but they clearly understood that violence is unacceptable and that Chrissy deserves the same rights as they. Vickie Thoms, the older woman who was the lone person to rise to defend Chrissy, spoke to the crowd and accepted our thanks for her bravery.
Surprisingly to me, two women who had transitioned during the 70's attended as well, feeling it was time to come out in support of their sisters. One woman, one of the last patients treated by Hopkins in 1975, spoke to me about how fortunate she has been since then to be herself, but in spite of being blessed, she is still hassled and insulted when the issue of her past arises. And she raises it in intimate situations because of her belief in her own integrity. Relationships - the final frontier.
Being a politician, I decided we'd keep the speakers limited in number and duration. We did, finishing in half an hour. Caroline did the introductions, Meredith Moise gave the invocation, Sandy roused the crowd, Mara Keisling, Executive Director of NCTE, spoke about the awful statistics relating to violence against trans people, and Lea Gilmore, of the Maryland Black Family Alliance, led the crowd in inspirational song.
And then, when the program ended and the crowd would have normally dispersed, a funny thing happened. No one left.
People mingled for another 75 minutes until the lights were turned out in the parking lot. There had been no trouble, no counter-demonstration, no hate speech - just love and sisterhood and camaraderie. Locals and activists, gay and straight, cis and trans.
Something has changed in Maryland for the better. Finally.