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Proposed Anti-Bias Law Would Protect Transgender New Yorkers, Advocates Say

By Andrea Swalec | October 25, 2012 7:52am

LOWER MANHATTAN — Two state lawmakers from Manhattan opened their doors to transgender people and LGBT advocates Wednesday at a public forum they held to push for proposed legislation they say would extend the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming New York City residents.

The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried and State Sen. Daniel Squadron sponsored, would give statewide legal protections to people who are denied employment, housing, access to health care, or access to stores or restaurants because of their gender.

"It is simply unacceptable that a New Yorker can lose their job or be evicted from their home because of their gender identity or expression," said Squadron, who represents lower Manhattan and the East Village, as well as parts of Brooklyn. "It's time for New York to stand up for what's right and ensure that all people, no matter how they identify, are treated with the fairness and dignity they deserve."

GENDA has passed in the state Assembly five times, but it remains stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

For transgender New York City residents, who are protected by a city law banning gender-based bias, a new state law would offer additional legal recourse.

"GENDA would allow New York City residents to file a claim with the State Division of Human Rights based on a report of discrimination," said Katharine Bodde, policy counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The law would also protect transgender city residents when they leave the five boroughs.

"No resident of New York state should fear that they're on the wrong side of the county lines when it comes to providing for their family," said Christopher Argyros, a transgender-rights organizer for Empire State Pride Agenda.

Melissa Sklarz, a transgender woman who is director of the New York Trans Rights Organization, said GENDA could have given her legal recourse when she was fired after her employer learned she would begin to identify as a woman, not a man.

"GENDA would have created the same level field of opportunity for me," she said.

Noah Lewis, of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it's heartbreaking to have to tell transgender people calling to report discrimination in counties without anti-discrimination laws that he has no legal leg to stand on to help them. For those people, the passage of GENDA is a life-or-death issue, he said.

"On a weekly basis, I have [transgender] people tell me they're at the end of their rope," he said.

Gottfried, whose district covers the West Side and parts of Midtown, asked forum participants including the police chiefs of Albany and Rochester to address the oft-stated concern from opponents of the bill that people who are not transgender would use the law to invade women's restrooms and locker rooms.

"I truly believe that passing this legislation will not lead to those types of incidents," said James Sheppard, Rochester's chief of police.

Causten Wollerman, an organizer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said he had never heard of such an incident anywhere in the country.

"I don't know of any circumstance under which one of these laws has been used to protect or shield someone [regarding] criminal behavior or indecent behavior," he said.

GENDA could be on the agenda at a special session of the state Senate this December. Or, if Democrats take control of the Senate in the upcoming election, the bill could go to the floor early next year, insiders said.

Sixteen states, Washington, D.C., New York City and New York state counties including Albany, Buffalo and Rochester already have laws banning discrimination against transgender people, according to Empire State Pride Agenda.

Sheppard, a 34-year police veteran who is black, described transgender rights as a civil-rights issue.

"You take gender expression out of it," he said, "and it sounds like we're talking about African-Americans or Latinos."