Marriage to a 'T'

by by Will Fesperman

illustration by by Diane Zhou

Owen still remembers being five years old and thinking that everyone was like Mr. Potato Head, his favorite toy. “I thought you could just pick and choose the outfit or the female or masculine features that you were going to have…Turns out that’s not the way it was.” At the time, Owen was female-bodied and went by ‘Heidi.’ As a teenager, he considered taking hormones to change his body, but the pressures of high school discouraged it, so he decided to wait. “It’s a rough road to walk down, and there was a lot of bullying,” he told me. Instead, Owen came out to his family as transgender, “in small doses.” First he told them he was ‘queer’; a few years later he told them he wanted to be called ‘Owen’ and be referred to with male pronouns: he, his, him. This was difficult news for his conservative, Catholic family. “It takes them a while to be okay with things they’re not okay with,” Owen said.

I first met Owen in June 2010, in the Baltimore headquarters of Equality Maryland, a civil rights group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Marylanders. I was interning for Equality Maryland because I wanted to fight for same-sex marriage; I hadn’t given much thought to the “T” in LGBT until then. As part of my training, Owen, a field organizer for Equality Maryland, gave me a run-down of various identities that fall under the term ‘transgender’: genderqueer, those who have a gender that is neither male nor female, or is fluid; transsexual, those who identify as a different sex than one was born with, sometimes using surgery or hormones to change one’s body, cross-dressers, those who dress in clothes typical of the opposite gender.

Owen, who identifies as genderqueer, has been the victim of two hate crimes since he began taking testosterone ten years ago. In both cases, he said, the police were unresponsive. The list of offenses goes on. “I’ve been homeless. I have been denied employment after people have been really excited about hiring me and I’ve come in to meet them and they wouldn’t even shake my hand. I’ve been asked to leave restaurants.”

Many transgender people in the US experience similar discrimination. In a 2009 study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 97 percent of the 6,450 transgender people surveyed reported being harassed or assaulted at work for being transgender. 27 percent reported losing their job because of their gender identity. 15 percent of respondents reported incomes of $10,000 or less—twice the national average reporting this level of income. Besides employment discrimination, problems commonly arise in situations that require government-issued identification—air travel and rental applications for housing, for example. Transsexual people often have IDs that list their names and gender at birth, but not their current name and gender. Applying for a change of gender on one’s license is a difficult process and in many states requires that one has had sex reassignment surgery.

Many states lack legal protection against discrimination. In 34 states, including Maryland, a person can be denied housing, employment, or public accommodations for being transgender. In 29 of those states, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is also legal—Maryland is one of the five states with protections for sexual orientation but not gender identity, Rhode Island is one of 16 states that protects both. Baltimore City and three Maryland counties have passed ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, but these local ordinances often go unenforced, and many people don’t know they exist.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, is a pending federal bill that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens from employment discrimination in any form—firing, not hiring, or harassment on the job—with exemptions for religious organizations. Lawmakers first introduced the bill in 1994 to prevent discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation. Year after year, ENDA failed in committee. The 2007 version of ENDA was the first to include gender identity, but when it became clear that a trans-inclusive ENDA had little hope of passage, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), who is openly gay, removed gender identity from the bill. The move was highly controversial, since by 2007 most LGBT rights groups had vowed they would only support an ENDA that included protections for transgender people. “I consider transgender people part of the same family,” Sara Whitman, a lesbian blogger, wrote in an op-ed for the Huffington Post at the time. “Removing them from the bill is like telling me I can bring two of my children along, but not the third.”

In a press conference in October 2007, Rep. Frank expressed his frustration with activists who opposed a watered-down ENDA, saying their all-or-nothing approach was “profoundly wrong in the moral sense,” and that transgender activists were “unrealistic [about] what a democratic political system can offer.”

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest gay rights group, had promised to only support a trans-inclusive ENDA in 2004, but in October 2007 the organization settled on an uneasy neutrality—they wouldn’t support Rep. Frank’s ENDA, but they wouldn’t oppose it, either. That alone was too much for Donna Rose, HRC’s only transgender board member, who resigned that October. “It is our moral obligation,” Rose said in her letter of resignation, “to make a loud, clear, unmistakable statement that we are a community and we will not be divided.” A month later, HRC went a step further and officially endorsed the gay-only ENDA, provoking widespread protest in the LGBT community.

Yet according to Lambda Legal, a national legal group for LGBT people, much of the discrimination against gay people has more to do with their gender expression than their sexuality. In October 2007, the group published a report showing how removing gender identity from ENDA actually limited its ability to protect gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. “[Under Rep. Frank’s ENDA] you can’t be fired for being lesbian, gay or bisexual but you can be fired if your boss thinks you fit their stereotype of one,” said Kevin Cathcart, Lambda Legal’s executive director, in a press release.

As expected, both bills failed, but the debacle exposed divisions in the LGBT rights movement over transgender issues. Since then, every version of ENDA has included gender identity. The House Committee on Education and Labor postponed the bill in 2009, and in the three years since no action has been taken to move ENDA out of committee.


In Maryland, a transgender non-discrimination bill appeared ready to pass during the 2012 legislative session. Governor Martin O’Malley had endorsed the bill and public polls showed support for it. But the bill was never brought up for a vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, leaving it to die in late March. Gender Rights Maryland, a transgender rights group, blamed the bill’s failure on Senate President Thomas V. Miller, who they said prevented the bill from being brought to a vote in committee. “It is unfortunate that a single person…can decide the fate of so many Marylanders,” the group posted on its website.

But other factors also led to the bill’s demise. During my time working at Equality Maryland, it was apparent that gay marriage was prioritized over transgender rights. In 2010, volunteers worked long hours collecting signatures in support of both same-sex marriage and the transgender bill. The signatures were collected as postcards to Maryland legislators, two to a page. When we approached people in public places, clipboards in hand, the first question we asked was always “Do you support marriage for same-sex couples?” If the person said any form of “No,” we were supposed to say, “Have a nice day,” and move on. The postcard for same-sex marriage came first. By prioritizing gay marriage, we lost the opportunity to talk to tens of thousands of Marylanders about transgender issues and get their written support. Same-sex marriage also came first on scripts for phone banks. This ordering makes a difference in cases where a person is opposed to same-sex marriage but supports rights for transgender people.

“Marriage got more money, marriage got more time, it got more coalition support,” Owen said. Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the coalition in support of same-sex marriage, reached one hundred members this August, with supporters including Equality Maryland, HRC, the NAACP, and the ACLU. The informal coalition in support of the transgender bill, however, had only 12 members.

Jillian Weiss, a professor of law and society at Ramapo College, said that the focus on same-sex marriage has partly to do with class differences within the LGBT community, a factor that she says has marginalized transgender issues from the beginning. In the 1990s, as the gay rights movement was beginning to include transgender people, “central elements of the gay community, who were of a middle class or upper middle class background…saw the transgender community as potentially an obstacle to progress,” Weiss said. Transgender people, who generally face greater discrimination in employment and education, couldn’t get “an equal footing” to push their issues. The Maryland legislature’s LGBT Caucus contains only gay and lesbian—not transgender—delegates. And while three openly gay people (including Rep. Barney Frank, of ENDA infamy) serve on the U.S. House of Representatives, no transgender person has been elected to a state legislature.

According to Weiss, the wealthiest gays and lesbians have determined the focus of the LGBT movement. “Wealthy gay people have been sparked by the issue [of same-sex marriage] and feel that this is a way in which they are immediately marked as second class citizens, and so they donated lots and lots of money,” she explained. Two of these gay donors are Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook whose estimated net worth is $850 million, and his husband, Sean Eldridge B’09, the political director of Freedom to Marry, a national marriage equality group. Though the couple has donated thousands of dollars to same-sex marriage campaigns—pledging to match up to $25,000 in donations to Equality Maryland in 2010, and pledging $100,000 to Mainers United for Marriage last May—they have not donated to transgender causes.


Societal attitudes toward gay people and transgender people also play a role in skewing the gay rights movement toward marriage. In an interview with City Paper, a Baltimore-based weekly, Dana Beyer, a transgender activist in Maryland, said, “It’s not easy to introduce a community to a state, to get people to understand. Many gay people didn’t understand who trans people were, let alone straight people.”

LGBT groups lose an opportunity to educate the public about transgender people when they cast same-sex marriage as solely a gay and lesbian issue. As Owen sees it, same-sex marriage is a transgender concern as well, even if not the most urgent. He himself is engaged to someone who shares his legal sex (female), making his marriage officially a “same-sex” one, although he doesn’t think of it that way. For Owen, this begs the question, “Why aren’t there people who are transgender talking about the importance of validating our marriages?” All—or at least the vast majority—of ads promoting marriage equality feature only straight or gay couples.

But Weiss says that mixing gender identity issues and same-sex marriage could be  dangerous: “I could easily see campaigners having the idea that it would be best not to get into that minefield,” she said.

For Owen, it’s simply a matter of including everyone under the LGBT mantle. The fight for same-sex marriage “is never inclusive,” he said. “And that is really sad. And that really divides the community.”

Will Fesperman B’15 was never brought up for a vote.