Activists now looking toward protection from gender identity discrimination

By Jenny Hottle, staff writer
Originally posted on Diamondbackonline.com on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012

As a transgender student working at a children’s summer camp, Mykell Hatcher-McLarin refused to disclose his identity, fearing he would lose his job if parents perceived him as a risk to their children.

The junior sociology major often worries he could be denied housing or health care one day, just for choosing to express his identity.

But Hatcher-McLarin believes a time when the law offers protection from gender identity discrimination may be on the horizon — as long as state and local advocates can maintain their momentum from upholding same-sex marriage in the state. While the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act failed to pass in the state General Assembly last year, members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups on the campus said they will turn their attention to this year’s push when they return to the campus.

The act, which would prohibit discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing and credit, was overshadowed by the same-sex marriage bill when it was introduced to the 2011 legislative session, said Sharon Brackett, board chair of Gender Rights Maryland. Thirteen states and Washington have passed such anti-discrimination bills, and this state extended by executive order its anti-discrimination law for government employees to include gender identity in 2007.

While the state House of Delegates passed the 2011 bill, and advocates and supporters believed they had the votes to pass it, Brackett said, it failed in the Senate.

“[Marriage equality] was down our list quite a ways,” Brackett said. “It’s good you can get married, but not if you can’t get a job.”

Some transgender groups also opposed the wording of the state’s bill because it would not have prohibited discrimination in “public accommodations,” which include public situations such as riding a bus or passing through airport security, said Brackett.

“Transgender issues aren’t really things that people think about,” said Zachary Mellen, a junior German and journalism major. “Antidiscrimination got pushed under the rug — it really shows how much antidiscrimination needs to be more publicized. There aren’t a lot of people who know about it.”

Some advocates said they worry legislators will feel less pressure to support the act given the recent passing of same-sex marriage. Instead, they may wish to focus their efforts on other communities, said Matt Arnstine, Student Government Affairs communications director.

“It will be interesting to see how the same-sex marriage bill adds pressure for them to protect transgender individuals, or if it will actually release pressure,” Arnstine said. “There’s been a lot of coverage of the state Senate leader not supporting the [transgender protection] bill, so we will be curious to see if Mike Miller allows it up for vote.”

However, state voters have sent the message that they are sympathetic to the LGBT community by voting same-sex marriage into law, said Hatcher-McLarin.

“They’ve given the image that they’re supportive of the LGBT community and whatever issues they’re having,” he said.

Within the science community as well, attitudes toward transgender people have shifted — earlier this month, the American Psychiatric Association struck “gender identity disorder” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Instead, transgender people may be diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” if they experience distress related to their gender transitions.

Lack of education remains a challenge, said Mellen, a facilitator in university student group Trans U. Students are working to gain more visibility by holding panels for other groups, and future events are in the works.

This university is already a step above the state, as it boasts a nondiscrimination policy that includes gender identity and expression — a change that went into effect in June. Students and officials said there’s still work to be done to make life for transgender students more comfortable.

The university ranked among the top 25 LGBT-friendly colleges and universities this year, according to national nonprofit organization Campus Pride, receiving the highest possible marks in every area but housing on the organization’s campus climate index.

“We don’t have everything, but we have a lot,” said Luke Jensen, LGBT Equity Center director. He added the university must continue putting effort toward improving living conditions for transgender students, starting with the construction and renovation of bathrooms in academic buildings and residence halls.

The classroom can present other challenges, said Hatcher-McLarin. Teachers and students often mix up their pronouns when talking about him.

“There’s a level of comfort I want to have in my classroom that I don’t particularly have, but talking to some teachers has proven effective,” he said. One professor who often mislabeled Hatcher-McLarin now uses the correct pronouns and checks in regularly to see how things are going.

“It’s nice to have that relationship with a teacher,” he said. “It makes class easier.”

Opportunities like the preferred name program — which allows students to be identified on student IDs, class lists and directories with their preferred names instead of their legal names — have made the transition easier on the campus.

“I’m really impressed with how welcoming the university is,” said Mellen, adding he wasn’t aware of the university’s LGBT resources before coming here.

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