City implements trans rights (NY Blade, 4.22.05)

City implements trans rights
Local Law 3 amends the city’s Human Rights Law to protect gender identity and
By Mike Lavers
New York Blade News
Friday, April 22, 2005

As a transsexual, Justine Nicholas said she often feels like Nora in the last act of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” This sense of isolation was only compounded after a security guard in Midtown demanded that she prove her gender after she walked out of a women’s restroom.

“I was born as an insider,” Nicholas, 46, said. “I lived the first 43 years of my life as a white heterosexual male and while I wasn’t fabulously wealthy, nobody questioned what restroom I used when I walked in.”

Nicholas, a teacher at the City University of New York, was among more than 60 activists, officials and legal experts at a forum at New York University on Tuesday, April 19, that discussed the implementation of law that amended the city’s Human Rights Law to include gender identity and expression as a protected category. The New York City Council overwhelmingly passed Local Law 3, which protects transgendered New Yorkers from housing, employment and public accommodation discrimination, in April 2002; Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly signed it into law. The city’s Commission on Human Rights adopted these guidelines in December.

Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said these guidelines and amendments establish an important legal precedent. “There haven’t been many guidelines for gender identity and expression,” he said. “But when we added gender identity and expression to the city Human Rights Law, it was somewhat of a novelty under civil rights law.”

The TLDEF announced earlier this month that it had reached a settlement under the amended HRL after Nicholas and Pauline Park, co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, filed complaints with the CHR. They alleged security guards did not allow them to access public restrooms. The settlements (the first since Local Law 3 took effect) constitute an important success, Silverman said: “Having success in cases like those is pressing some hot buttons.”

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Lesbian & Gay Task Force, described the impact of Local Law 3 as “tremendous” and added that other municipalities across the country are looking at it as a model. “This is a monumental step forward,” Foreman said. “When you do something like this it affects 8 million people. And other cities look to New York and say, “If New York can do it then we can do it also.”

Councilmember Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), who sponsored the bill, said it was part of an ongoing civil rights struggle for the transgendered. “We are not talking just about human rights but a civil rights movement,” he said. “One of the most important things we have learned is that laws don’t change attitudes.”

Sen. Tom Duane (D-West Side) and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried (D-Hell’s Kitchen) have reintroduced a bill in Albany last week that seeks to extend legal protections to transgendered people statewide. NYAGRA, the Empire State Pride Agenda and a number of other gay advocacy groups have endorsed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. Gottfried said he hopes the bill will expand protections outlined in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. “The experience of transgender individuals and the discrimination they face is unique,” Gottfried said. “It should be specifically identified and unambiguously rejected in our state’s civil rights laws.”

Despite these ongoing legislative and legal efforts, CHR Deputy Commissioner Avery Mehlman said he is concerned that many transgendered New Yorkers are simply unaware that they are protected under the law. “When we speak with the transgender community we see discrimination everywhere,” he said. “But we don’t see the numbers coming down to the agency to file a complaint.”

But Nicholas said this was a first step: “The fact that such a law was passed caused people to realize that their own consciousness needs to be raised.”

This article originally appeared in the 22 April 2005 issue of the New York Blade News, which is now defunct.

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