Loehmann’s settles human rights complaint with transgender woman (Chelsea Now, 2.23.07)

Loehmann’s settles human rights complaint with transgender woman
By Chris Lombardi
Chelsea Now
Volume One, Issue 23
February 23 – March 1, 2007

Jane Garra, a tall, leggy blues guitarist with hair flopping into her eyes, is often interrupted during performances at Brooklyn’s Buttermilk bar and the Ace Café in Manhattan, accosted by young women with a simple question not about her unusual instrument — a dobro guitar, which is used in Hawaiian music and is familiar enough to music aficionados at the CasHank Hootenanny Jamboree, a regular jam session held every month at Buttermilk.

No, Galla said, “The girls tell me, `We love the way you dress! How do you do it?'” I tell them every time: “If you want to look like this, go shop at Loehmann’s!”

For more than two years, Galla has been a regular at the 86-year-old discount clothing store on Seventh Ave. and 17th St. In fact, many of Loehmann’s employees know her well enough to ask where she has been when they don’t see her for a while.

Now, Loehmann’s employees also know Garra as a plaintiff.

That is because she was denied access to Loehmann’s public restrooms and fitting rooms on two occasions last year, leading her to file a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission.

Perhaps it was her height, her angular face, her gravelly voice that caused someone to suspect that Garra was born a boy. Garra may never know for certain. What is clear is that it was illegal for the store to order her out.

Last week, Garra and her lawyer, Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, announced that the case had been settled. Loehmann’s agreed to train their employees to act with sensitivity toward transgender women and men, and to grant them full access to public facilities as required by New York City’s Human Rights Law, which was amended in March 2002 to “eliminate discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived gender.”

In the five years since that groundbreaking legislation was passed by the City Council, a steady stream of cases has come to the Commission’s attention, as more and more transgender women and men have felt free to speak up about what they are experiencing.

Many of the cases have involved public employees. Last summer, a 70-year-old Verizon worker won a landmark settlement against the Metropolitan Transit Authority after she was repeatedly arrested and cursed at by transit police for using restrooms at Grand Central Station, where she worked. Last fall, a handful of transgender teens were arrested in Port Authority for the same reason, and last month, a young transgender employee of Housing Works filed suit against the MTA, charging harassment by numerous workers she’d asked to help her.

The Loehmann’s case is in some ways typical of the harassment endured by transgender people, said advocates and the Human Rights Commission, as they applauded both Loehmann’s agreement to settle and Garra’s bravery in coming forward about the issue. They differed on whether the relatively small number of cases surfacing each year is a sign of progress, indifference or changes occurring haphazardly, just under the surface.

New York’s Human Rights Law, also known as Title 8 of the Administrative Code, has contained anti-discrimination provisions for many years. But it wasn’t until 2002, after years of hearings before overlapping committees, that “gender identity” was added to the statute, banning discrimination when an individual’s “gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the legal sex assigned to an individual at birth.”

It took nearly two years for the changes in the law to become translated into policies and recommendations for city agencies, during which time Michael Silverman, a longtime attorney with Lambda Legal Defense Fund with a 10-year history of working on behalf of LGBT civil rights, decided to found TLDEF, a legal advocacy group specifically for transgendered people.

TLDEF then advised the city on how to educate employees about transgender issues and helped them create new guidelines on employment, harassment and access to public facilities — like the restrooms and fitting rooms denied to Jane Garra.

Garra’s own personal journey has been rather rapid. A former English teacher in a Brooklyn public high school, she told Chelsea Now that it wasn’t until she left the Board of Education, about five years ago, that she came clear about what she’d only suspected: that she was a woman in a man’s body. A few years of deep work with therapists and doctors helped her settle into her new identity. Sometime in 2004, she began shopping at Loehmann’s, finding their clothes the perfect fit for her life as Jane.

“They have a fabulous selection of clothes,” Garra said, “and you can’t beat the prices.” She favors “Western wear,” as befits a country-western musician, and confesses, “I’m a clearance-rack girl.” She started going two to three times a month, she said, becoming such a regular patron that employees noticed when a week went by without her.

It was a shock, then, in spring 2006 when a young employee came up to her in the women’s room, saying nervously, “We got a report you were here…you have to go use the men’s room.” Garra was stunned but decided to let it go, since the woman wasn’t an employee she knew. But a few months later, when Garra was about to try on some casual wear in a private fitting room in the women’s department, a middle-aged store manager came up to her and told her, “Management says that you can’t be in this fitting room.”

“I said, `I’ve been using this particular facility for several years,'” said Garra with a deep chuckle. After that second incident, Galla called Silverman and TLDEF, and Galla v. Loehmann’s was born.

Silverman was already working with Helena Stone, the 70-year-old telephone technician who had been arrested three times for using the restroom at Grand Central during her breaks from working on the station’s phone system. One officer called her “a freak, a weirdo and the ugliest woman in the world,” according to Stone. In October, MTA settled with Stone, paying her legal fees and agreeing to mandatory staff train regarding their legal obligations toward the transgendered.

But just as Silverman was telling the press that the settlement was a “milestone,” Port Authority police were arresting three transgendered teenagers. Meanwhile, Tracy Bumpurs, an employee of the social service agency Housing Works, was still fighting to get MTA to simply apologize for her treatment in July 2006, when her request for help with her MetroCard was met, she said, with a homophobic tirade.

David Thorpe of Housing Works said that he and Bumpurs met repeatedly with MTA officials and were told that the employees involved would be subject to a disciplinary hearing, but there has been no word on her other requests. The suit, filed on Jan. 30, requests not just compliance but financial redress to compensate Bumpur’s sleepless nights and lost work since the incident.

Thorpe added that Housing Works, which runs a residential facility for homeless people with HIV, has a long and successful track record when it has pursued litigation against the city, and that “this was an employee of ours, as well as a civil rights issue. We had to do it.” And while the MTA has scheduled transgender sensitivity training for its employees, Thorpe and Bumpurs say they have yet to see tangible result.

TLDEF’s Michael Silverman said he is working with both the MTA and the Port Authority police on employee training, but many agree with Housing Works that the pace is painfully slow. Even the very city officials charged with enforcing and publicizing the human rights law admit that progress is painfully slow.

Avery Melman, of the New York City Human Rights Commission, who helped broker the Loehmann’s settlement, said that “the more publicity cases like this get, the more information people have about their rights under the human rights law.” He said that half the battle is getting the word out to people who may not realize they are being discriminated against.

“I’ve spoken at numerous forums regarding the rights of transgendered individuals under the human rights law,” said Melman, “and I’ve had relatively few people approach me in those five years.”

Melman pointed to the Guidelines on Gender Identity (available on his agency’s Website at http://nyc.gov/html/cchr/html/trans_guide.html developed with Silverman and other advocates, and said that there is now “ongoing training at all city agencies” based on the guidelines. He pointed to the relative handful of cases as a hopeful sign: Perhaps most people were getting the message.

Silverman respectfully disagrees with that assessment. “I think it remains more the case that people don’t know their rights,” he said. Even so, his office is subject to a stream of calls — more than his attorneys can take on. “We can only take on a small handful.” Public education is a growing, ongoing need, he said.

Pauline Park, director of the New York Association of Gender Rights Advocacy, pointed out that most of the materials printed by the Human Rights Commission are still sitting in that agency’s office, waiting to be distributed. “This law has been on the books since April 2002. To the extent people don’t know about it, I lay this at the feet of the Bloomberg administration,” she said.

If Loehmann’s failed to understand they were breaking the law by excluding Jane Garra from public accommodations, Park added, that is a clear indication that this mayoral administration is not doing its job.

“They should be educating employers, landlords,” said Park. “They don’t really take action until they’re pressured.”

None of the slow overall progress detracted from the sort of wary glee with which Garra last approached Loehmann’s recently, when she returned for the first time since the lawsuit began.

Garra had said earlier that her case was “just so important for people, for how they perceive us. New York’s a diverse place. We’re here, and we don’t want to be in the closet any more, so to speak.”

But last Wednesday, she just wanted to fill her own closet as she perused the latest circulars. “I can’t wait to cash in on the sales,” she grinned.

photo caption:

Michael Silverman, lawyer for the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, with his client Jane Galla outside Loehmann’s department store earlier this week.

photo by Jefferson Siegel

This article originally appeared in the 23 February -1 March 2007 issue (Volume One, Issue 23) of Chelsea Now.

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