Johns Hopkins University student Ben Panico rallies support for the Fairness for All Marylanders Act during a recent Lobby Day in Annapolis.
Jennifer Fischetti remembers the day she was outed like it was yesterday. It was July 24, 2004 and she was out with some friends grabbing a bite to eat after the bars had closed. When she walked in, Fischetti saw a coworker sitting at the counter.
"He looked at me and so I had to turn around and tell my friends we needed to leave," she said.
At the time, Fischetti was showing up to work as her biological gender — male. But in her personal life, she lived as a woman. She walked a fine line with her gender expression and seeing a coworker out in the world was potentially dangerous.
"He didn't know I was transgender. Up until that point, I would present as a male for fear of losing my job," she said.
As soon as the coworker realized whom he had seen, he sent a torrent of text messages to everyone with whom he worked, exposing Fischetti as transgender.
When Fischetti, who lives in Baltimore, returned to her job the following Monday, everyone knew. The days that followed were brutal.
"When I got there Wednesday morning for a manager's meeting, before the meeting started another employee took me out, took me to another room and terminated me," she said.
Fischetti's manager suggested her work was "off," even though her performance reviews up to that point had been exemplary. Fischetti believes she was fired ostensibly for being transgender.
Shifts in policy in motion
That termination was totally legal under current Maryland law. But it's something lawmakers are trying to address with a bill currently making its way through the state senate.
The Fairness for All Marylanders Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Madaleno of Montgomery County and 22 other co-sponsors, would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Madaleno says this bill has been a long time coming.
"When Maryland added sexual orientation to our anti-discrimination law in 2001, we were the very last state to move forward adding gays and lesbians without also including gender identity," he said. "And now we're going back and trying to add gender identity, as we have for the last six years."
A number of jurisdictions around the region already have these protections in place. In Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Hyattsville, Howard County and Montgomery County, as well as the District of Columbia, it's illegal to discriminate based on someone's gender identity. In this case, gender identity means any way a person chooses to express gender, regardless of whether that person self-identifies as transgender.
Supporters of the bill say it's critical to curbing the kind of discrimination that people like Jennifer Fischetti have endured when trying to get jobs, housing, or even a meal in a restaurant.
"This bill is incredibly necessary because trans people are facing discrimination in the very areas that area covered. Trans people are losing jobs because of being trans," said Keith Thirion, of Equality Maryland. "The Fairness for All Marylanders Act is about providing the legal recourse to address those instances."
Thirion says part of the difficulty in getting previous iterations of this bill passed is a fundamental misunderstanding by some lawmakers about who transgender people are. And who they're not.
"It's a misconception not recognizing that a trans person's gender identity is something that is deeply held. To transition is a process that one doesn't consider lightly," he says. "It's not like trans people wake up in the morning and say out of the blue, 'I'm going to start living as a man or I'm going to start living as a woman,' having never thought about it before."
Concerns go beyond workplace
Trans people like Jennifer Fischetti say they simply want the same civil rights that their contemporaries enjoy. When Fischetti was outed and consequently fired, her worst fears reared up.
"Getting a new job wasn't my biggest concern. My biggest concern was having my life end, literally," she said. "The stigma against transgender people was so severe that growing up, I felt that if I was found out as being transgender, my only option would be to commit suicide."
Fischetti survived the outing and the firing. Now she lives her life openly as a transgender woman. She went back to school and is studying public policy. She says hopes the next time she lands a job, she won't have to worry about whether her chosen gender will prevent her from keeping it.
[Music: "Barricades & Brickwalls" by Kasey Chambers from Barricades & Brickwalls]