Jenna Fischetti hopes no one else will have to go through what she did.
A transgender woman, Fischetti says she was fired from her car dealership job in 2004 after her employers discovered that while they knew her as a male at work, she adopted a female persona on weekends.
The official excuses for her dismissal kept shifting, but she said the real reason was clear enough — people just couldn’t accept who she was.
A proposal before the General Assembly this year, however, would protect other transgender individuals from what Fischetti faced.
The Fairness for All Marylanders Act, sponsored by Montgomery County Sens. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington and Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.
The bill offers the same protections for gender identity that are currently given to sexual orientation, race, religion, age, sex, marital status and national origin.
With 21 co-sponsors, the bill has “a tremendous cross-section of support within the Senate,” Raskin said. “The victory of marriage equality [in 2012] demonstrated that Maryland is a state that believes in equal rights.”
The state’s transgender community deserves fair and equal treatment under the law, Raskin said. Those found guilty of such discrimination can face civil penalties of up to $500 for a first incident and up to $2,500 for a second incident, according to state law.
Similar legislation passed the House in 2011, by a vote of 86-52, but was sent back to committee in the Senate. Three of the senators who voted to recommit that version of the bill have signed on as co-sponsors of this year’s measure.
A highly publicized attack on a transgender woman at a Rosedale McDonald’s in April of that year, after the bill had failed, drew national attention to the issue.
In the past, critics of such measures have raised concerns that such a law could allow sexual predators to freely enter women’s restrooms, but transgender activists argue there’s no evidence that such anti-discrimination laws have led to harassment or assault.
Laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity are already on the books in Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties as well as Baltimore city.
“As we’ve been doing this over the years, we’ve seen opposition diminish,” said Carrie Evans, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Equality Maryland. Sixteen states, as well as Washington, D.C., have enacted similar laws.
While last year’s battle over same-sex marriage drew substantial opposition from religious leaders, the gender-identity issue tends to not provoke such fervor, Evans said. “It’s hard to find a religious [argument against] people getting and keeping a job based on their merits,” she said.
A similar bill, however, introduced by Raskin in 2012 and sidelined by the same-sex marriage debate, drew opposition from the Maryland Catholic Conference.
In written testimony to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the organization praised the compassionate intent of the bill but argued that it espoused “a fundamental violation of our society’s basic understanding of the human person” and undermined “the inextricable link between a person’s human nature and his or her identity as a man or woman.”
Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the conference, said she had not yet reviewed this year’s bill but expected the group’s previous objections to remain.
Since leaving the car dealership, Fischetti, who lives in Baltimore, said she has mostly been able to find only low-wage retail jobs that pay less than $10,000 per year. But she qualified for need-based scholarship funds and recently decided to get a college degree from the University of Baltimore, where she is a first-year student.
Fischetti said she had always felt different from other boys as a child, started adopting her female persona part time around 2000 and has been living full time as a woman since 2009.
At 48, she said her age also has made it difficult to find steady work.
“Not as many employers like to hire people in their 40s and 50s,” Fischetti said.
Difficult though it’s been, she is thankful for the support she has received from friends and family.
“I'm still better off than a lot of people,” Fischetti said. “Hopefully the [new law] will make a difference.”
The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing Feb. 26, and supporters are planning a day of lobbying Feb. 18.