Transgender Day Of Remembrance
19 November 2006
New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA)
I’d like to begin by thanking Eileen Novack and everyone else who helped put this event together, as well as the Rev. Paul Ratzlaff and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington for hosting the second Transgender Day of Remembrance here on Long Island. I’m honored to be asked to speak again as I was at last year’s event and I’m especially honored to be in such distinguished company, with Suffolk County Majority Leader Jon Cooper, with Donna Riley of Long Island Trans Experience (LITE) and with Juli Owens of the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition (LITAC).
The work of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy is and has always been about collaborating with and supporting the great work of organizations such as LITE, LIFE, LITAC, and LIGALY. NYAGRA is also proud to work with supportive people of faith such as Pastor Paul and the members of the UU Fellowship of Huntington. NYAGRA’s legislative agenda includes advancing the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) in the state legislature as well as working on implementation of the New York City Dignity in All Schools Act and the New York City transgender rights law (Int. No. 24, enacted as Local Law 3 of 2002). We’re also working with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) to try to persuade the New York City Department of Health to revise its proposed new regulation on change of legal sex designation on birth certificates for transsexual and transgendered people.
On a solemn occasion such as this, when we remember those we have lost to violence and hate, it is important to understand precisely what legislation and law can and cannot do. Non-discrimination laws can help protect us from discrimination, but they cannot eliminate discrimination. Hate crimes laws can help reduce hate crimes against transgendered people — at least those that include gender identity and expression, unlike the hate crimes law enacted by the New York state legislature in 2000 — but hate crimes laws cannot eliminate hate crimes.
We must recognize that law is an important but a weak tool of social change. To give you just one example that illustrates my point, let me mention the inclusion of sexual orientation to Ecuador’s constitution. When Ecuadorian activists were successful in getting sexual orientation added to their national constitution, it was a testament to their commitment to equality under law. But because there was no campaign to undergird that constitutional provision by educating the public on issues of sexual orientation, the addition of that provision did not substantially improve the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual Ecuadorians, who still face pervasive discrimination and police brutality in Ecuador. Without public support, legal change — whether through legislation, litigation, or even constitutional amendment — cannot alone fundamentally alter the reality of our lives as LGBT people. It is only through a change of hearts and minds, as the catch-phrase goes, that we can substantially change the grim reality that greets many members of our community as they try to make their way in a still-hostile society.
But what law can do is to send a signal to those who would commit discrimination and hate crimes. In addition to providing legal recourse to the victim, law sends a signal to a potential perpetrator as to what society finds acceptable or unacceptable, and so enactment of transgender-inclusive statutes can powerful influence the governing discourse of social relations with regard to how to treat transgendered and gender-variant people.
NYAGRA’s philosophy is to view law as a tool to educate the public as well as a means of providing transgendered and gender-variant people with legal redress. Just as we must pursue legal change — such as the addition of gender identity and expression to Nassau County human rights law — to protect transgendered and gender-variant people from discrimination, we must use legislation and litigation to educate the public so that members of the public understand the pervasive discrimination and violence that transgendered and gender-variant people still face, even in those cities, counties and states with transgender-inclusive non-discrimination and hate crimes laws.
The challenge for us is not only a political challenge of getting legislation through city councils, county and state legislatures, and Congress; it is also the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of our family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens. And so our task must be viewed in spiritual terms. It is therefore especially appropriate that we commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance here. But just as spirituality cannot be contained within the walls of a church — even one as welcoming and wonderful as this one — our task is to take the spirit of remembrance from this sanctuary out to every city and town on Long Island and beyond. In remembrance of all those we have lost to violence and hate, let us join together in re-committing ourselves to that task. Thank you.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA).