Equality Maryland and the Very Big Fail

a trans "ally" with the wrong approach

Originally, I was going to leave this alone. Enough other intelligent people were covering the recent events in Maryland’s push toward same-sex marriage and transgender civil rights that I didn’t think I’d be adding anything new to the conversation. I pulled back and used a broader lens to ask some questions about where we are as a queer community, thinking that this regional dispute was part of a larger debate and tension among the L, G, B, and T in le grande coalition.

And then this photo popped up on Equality Maryland’s Facebook fan page and a scant few hours later, it was gone, zapped into the nethersphere, along with whatever affronted comments had joined it temporarily. Fortunately I grabbed the photo before it had been cast out.

This is not just a photo, see. This is another stumble in a long line of mistakes that Equality Maryland’s staff and Executive Director have made in the HB 235 protections bill.

First, there seems to be an over-reliance on national organizations like HRC, the Gill Organization, and the Task Force, to set the agenda and strategize the push with legislators. Certainly there is room for national and local groups to work together, but people seem to be better served when the local groups—who presumably know their communities and legislative processes/personalities better—do most of the leading, with the national organizations throwing their weight and resources around as requested. Here it sounds like Equality Maryland let the 800-pound gorillas call the shots, which led to its green lighting of the decision to pull public accommodations from the protections bill.

Many trans activists called foul on this move, and I agree with their criticisms, for reasons I expressed earlier this week: One isn’t really behind transgender people’s rights if one won’t support all aspects of protections that have been put into place elsewhere. So in DC I could use the rest room that comports with my gender identity but in Maryland I could not? Having worked in the state of Maryland for nearly a dozen years, I find that distinction disturbing.

As some activists have pointed out, public accommodations means much more than rest rooms. I also agree here. But along the lines of “our values are expressed in how we treat the least of us,” we need to be willing to support the basest measures of protection.  Bathrooms are tricky because people think “men in women’s dresses assaulting women in rest rooms.” Let me make something perfectly clear: There is no case in the entire United States of some man assaulting a woman in her rest room by wearing a dress and using the protections of that jurisdiction in his defense. It just does not happen. It hasn’t happened in DC or San Francisco, where these protections have been in place for years. And it hasn’t occurred anywhere else.

Letting public accommodations be struck from the bill means that powerful teeth were taken away, that enforcement would not occur in lots of different situations; there need be no accommodation if one is arrested, seeks shelter, needs to use a locker room at the gym, and on and on. It feels like Equality Maryland and the national partners didn’t really care about transgender folks, but wanted to look like they cared, or that they had genuine concern for trans civil protections but weren’t very well versed in what such big changes would really mean for individuals in the community.

Of course there was criticism, which has been well documented in places like TransGRiot, Pam’s House Blend, and Planet Transgender, so I won’t repeat it here. The next series of mistakes was in Equality Maryland’s removal of critical comments from their fan page on Facebook, their defense of these removals by demonizing trans women and men, and even the former ED of their organization, and then their rather clumsy attempts to mollify criticism by plastering up all kinds of “trans friendly” (my words, not theirs) images and status updates. But by this point, it was going to take more than a photo of Mara Keisling to quell the storm.

Let me also say here that in that networked queer community way, I remotely know the current ED of Equality Maryland, who is an ex of a friend of mine. I’m confident that I’d have these comments about Equality Maryland’s behavior even if I didn’t know the ED from Eve. I was taken aback when I saw the censorship happening last week. Organizations that focus on pushing the agenda for a population of people are accountable to those people, and if they don’t like it they should find another line of work. When running an advocacy organization, the support and input from the very people for whom one advocates is paramount. One ought not erase their voices, one needs to respond to them.

One certainly shouldn’t plaster up a random photo of a trans “ally” from whatever protest or other. Especially a man in a skirt. That is like handing the conservative’s prime dealbreaker image to them on a silver platter. That this photo was tossed out on the social network like a shining example of what Equality Maryland is all about is a big part of the problem itself. As an organization, it does not understand the needs of trans people. And as a bill as it currently reads, HB 235 should not go to the floor, because it does not minimally serve the people it purports to protect.

Finally, I must join in the chorus of people requesting that the ED of Equality Maryland step down. It’s time to bring in a professional who will work to protect the most vulnerable segments of Maryland’s queer communities.

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14 Comments on “Equality Maryland and the Very Big Fail”

  1. Jeannine Love
    March 23, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    I like that you make the point that national groups need to put their muscle *behind* local organizations, not overpower them. I am teaching a class on diversity & conflict resolution in community building and this is something we go over again and again: Organizers should get the people affected involved, listen to their voices and help empower them to achieve their goals… not swoop down and force external agendas on them. This is true no matter what the issue might be.

    • evmaroon
      March 23, 2011 at 10:21 am #

      Thank you, Dr. Love! It can be a hard balance to strike, and without being in the room during all of the planning and strategy sessions between these organizations, I can’t unpack what transpired. But since I now work for a small organization in an underfunded community, I’ve seen some subtle bullying, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dominant personalities in the mix out in Maryland who pushed their perspectives harder than others. Sometimes the smarter course does not prevail, unfortunately. But sheesh, we can’t respond to an initial bad decision with censorship and delusion. That serves no one.

  2. Equality Advocate
    March 23, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    You may want to check out a blog on the topic of the picture that was posted on Pam’s House Blend: http://www.pamshouseblend.com/diary/18902/two-different-thoughts-about-the-man-in-the-skirt in which Michiko Ota, someone who had in fact been a critic of the HB 235 strategy suggests that the furor over the photo may be misplaced.

    “The person depicted in this photo is someone who is symbolizing the distortion of the gender binary and raises the question, why shouldn’t men wear skirts? Where does this expectation that men must wear clothing that covers both legs and wraps around the crotch come from? While I feel I maintain that there should be a separation of gender identity and gender expression where it comes to legal and social issues, I do have an open mind of where the gender expression side of the house is coming from.”

    “I will say perhaps we need to stop and think that we are all different. Some show it out the inside and others, like the person depicted in this picture, show it on the outside. Isn’t this what diversity is all about?”

    • evmaroon
      March 23, 2011 at 11:39 am #

      I’m not against men, bearded or not, wearing skirts, Utili-kilts, dresses, or anything else marked as women’s wear or feminine clothing. I do find it dubious, however, that an organization charged with letting down trans people posts this photo in the midst of the storm as if it is a marker of how forward-thinking they are, or how indebted to trans civil rights they are. And why a picture of an ally? Why not a statement about people who have to deal with transphobia on a regular basis? Why say that homeless shelters are covered vis a vis housing when similar statues in other jurisdictions know that they’re only covered as public accommodations? If this photo ran in a different context—EQMD had a history of supporting debate, educating legislators on trans issues as they were whipping votes, offering public defenses about why PA is a necessary part of any civil rights protections bill—then this photo would be less striking, though still somewhat problematic. To cave in to unfair criticism that PA is going to let men in dresses run around scaring women, or that trans women are too frightening to let into rest rooms, sets this photo into a context that seems to cater to the idea that transgender people are freaks, out to titillate and provoke.
      Also, I don’t define diversity as clothing one can put on and take off at a moment’s notice. That would make the average Cher or Lady Gaga concert a diverse event by definition. Diversity as a concept should be regarded as a heritage or deeply held identity that is germane to a person’s psyche. I can wear a Eeyore costume to the next march on Washington but it doesn’t make me a donkey.

    • evmaroon
      March 23, 2011 at 11:40 am #

      And that said, I appreciate you bringing up that point from Michiko Ota’s post thread. Thanks!

  3. Katrina Rose
    March 23, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    ” I must join in the chorus of people requesting that the ED of Equality Maryland step down. It’s time to bring in a professional who will work to protect the most vulnerable segments of Maryland’s queer communities.”

    Yes, Meneses-Sheets must resign.

    And ‘Equality’ Maryland must undertake a process of finding a competent replacement which actually ensures that trans people – not people who make a claim to be trans when its convenient but actual people who actually understand what it means to live life with government documents that are your enemy – are actually considered for the position.

    I dare say that if a transsexual woman was currently in charge of ‘Equality’ Maryland, HB 235 would either contain legitimate language that Maryland trans people actually want or there would be no HB 235 – either being preferable to the transphobic travesty that we see now.

    • evmaroon
      March 23, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

      And guess what? Having an understanding of and an interest in the needs of one’s constituents is NOT rocket science. I dare say you make a good point, Katrina…

  4. Joy W
    March 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    Thanks for your posts on this issue. I grew up in Maryland, and my parents still live there, so I am on Equality Maryland’s listserv and usually do their action alerts. I have been writing to legislators asking them to support the bill, and now I’m wondering if that was the right thing to do.

    I spend my days enforcing protections against disability discrimination in public accommodations, so I get that it’s a critically important issue that really matters in people’s lives. But I guess I feel like protection against employment and housing discrimination is also important, and having that is better than no protection at all.

    I can also see how it will be harder to pass the public accommodations piece by itself, and I’m certainly not suggesting that transfolk should be satisfied with partial protection against discrimination… But practically, is it better that the bill be defeated (and sacrifice the possibility some measure of protection now) because it doesn’t include everything?

    I’m genuinely asking so I can figure out the “right” position to take as an ally, not trying to challenge or suggest that that approach would be wrong. I appreciate your thoughts.

    • evmaroon
      March 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

      I think because it’s the most controversial part of the bill, it will be very difficult to pass on its own. It could also lead to confusion, as has already been seen in the arguments over the state’s definition of dwelling and whether public accommodations will cover emergency housing. What are transgender or gender nonconforming people to do if they’re fleeing domestic violence or seeking shelter from inclement weather? What I guess I’m getting at is that if we remove protections that serve the most vulnerable populations now, who will come back to Annapolis to make sure the PA goes through next? I have grave doubts that a PA-only bill will make it through either house, if the much better funded and supported same-sex marriage effort has been floundering for a decade.
      Meanwhile, thanks for your comment, Joy! I’m so impressed with your disability advocacy, and so glad the progressive left has you on our side…

      • Joy W
        March 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

        I guess I’m wondering whether it’s better to take what the powers that be have decided they can get and have at least some protection against at least housing and employment discrimination. Obviously, it would be better and right to have everything in the bill, and everyone should have fought for that… But now that they’re not… Do you think it’s better to oppose the bill as it stands to make a point, or advocate for it to pass so that there are at least some safeguards? Of course, it’s a terrible choice to have to make, and it’s infuriating to be begging just to get scraps. I’d love to get your take, but my gut instinct would be to take the bill, because it will at least help some people who are getting evicted/fired as we speak. But I don’t really know what I’m talking about, which is why I ask.

      • evmaroon
        March 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

        Hey, these are great questions, honestly. I understand that on the surface, it sounds heartless to put off getting any changes now and going back to the drawing board, but the likelihood is that public accommodations for transgender people just on its own will not pass through the process for a long, long time. If this bill without PA gets tabled, then advocates can come back in the next session and reintroduce a bill with the PA included, and work to sell the whole package better. But I don’t see a PA-only bill getting passed. What does it mean to not be able to be denied a job, but not be able to use any of those employer’s rest rooms? Or to be supported as an enrolled student in the University of Maryland system, but having no access to gym locker rooms, or sex-segregated facilities? What does housing access mean if a homeless trans woman is turned away from emergency housing in the middle of winter and has no recourse or remedy? Once this shell of a protections bill is put into law, there will be next to no political pressure for the most vulnerable segments of the gender nonconforming population. So to cover them we need to ensure that when the bill gets passed, it has a sturdy PA clause attached to it.

      • evmaroon
        March 24, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

        I guess I didn’t really say anything different the second time. I just don’t think incremental change is possible here, because there won’t be a second increment in the current political environment.

  5. Joy W
    March 26, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    This is very helpful and thought-provoking. Thanks for the discussion!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Nothing Much to Celebrate | Trans/plant/portation - April 12, 2011

    […] lobbying for the bill, and the sponsoring Delegate, Ms. Pena-Melnyk, and surprisingly, the activists were quickly dismissed as adversaries, and when they posted comments on Equality Maryland’s Web site and Facebook page, their […]

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