Transgender Day of Remembrance 2011 at Queens Pride House

Transgender Day Of Remembrance
Queens Pride House
19 November 2011
Pauline Park
Queens Pride House

As president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House, I’m happy that we are hosting a transgender day of remembrance event for the very first time, and I’d like to begin by thanking Michelle Abdus-Shakur and Silvia Dutchevici and everyone else who helped put this event together.

I might add that Queens Pride House is the only LGBT community center in this city or this state that has an openly transgendered president of the board of directors or, for that matter, a board president of Asian descent; Pride House is also the only LGBT community center in this city with a person of color as board president.

In my capacity as chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), I’m working as part of a broad coalition of organizations seeking to advance enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which would prohibit discrimination throughout the state based on gender identity or gender expression. And I represent NYAGRA on a task force that is working on guidelines for implementation of the New York State Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), enacted last year by the state legislature to prohibit discrimination and bias-based harassment in public schools throughout the state. Dignity includes a comprehensive list of categories and characteristics, including gender defined to include gender identity and expression — the first statute enacted by the New York state legislature that includes transgender-specific language. And school bullying is one of the most common forms of harassment or violence directed towards those who are transgendered and gender-variant.

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 New York state 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. 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 president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House and chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA).

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