New Yorkers Join National Fight for Trans Equality
By Brett Krutzsch
Friday, May 18, 2007
Personal stories of harassment and discrimination were a uniting theme Tuesday night at the LGBT Center in Chelsea during a panel titled “Clock In/Speak Out: Gaining Momentum for Workplace Equality in New York and the U.S.”
Almost 50 people attended the discussion on transgender rights, sponsored by the LGBT legal advocacy group Lambda Legal. The debut program was one of seven flagship events across the country that took place on Tuesday to raise awareness for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Introduced in Congress on April 24, ENDA could make it illegal to fire, prevent promotion, or refuse to hire anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
At Tuesday’s event, the panel discussed key issues facing the transgender community, including problems with the healthcare system, workplace discrimination, and harassment of transgender youth in New York City schools.
“As an American citizen, I can work just like anyone else,” said panelist Elizabeth Rivera, Program Coordinator of TransJustice at the Audre Lorde Project. Rivera, who is transgender, said it can be very difficult to get a job when you are in an “in-between state” of male and female.
New York is one of 17 states that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, explicit statewide employment protection for transgender individuals does not exist.
Transgender youths are also at risk, and are not protected under New York State law. Truman High School student Andy Santana, who identifies as “gender queer,” has been verbally and physically assaulted by other students, and said complaints to school officials have fallen on deaf ears. Santana said that when he was jumped by another student in a stairwell, “There was a security guard who saw me screaming, and walked away.”
“Fear of going to school harms people,” said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. “You are less likely to be hired if you don’t have the skill set you need.”
Panel moderator and chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights and Advocacy (NYAGRA), Pauline Park, said that, “Since so many transgender people are forced out of high school, they don’t go to college. It’s no surprise that so many transgender people are forced into sex work or extremely low-paying work.”
Santana’s experience at Truman High School in the Bronx captured the attention of the audience and became a focal point for much of the evening.
“Gay bashing definitely happens,” Santana said. “Gay and transgender students in my school get their names posted on a wall by other kids. After a student gets jumped, their name gets crossed off.”
Park said her group has sponsored trainings related to transgender issues at Truman High School, but, “The principal has been hostile since day one,” and that the “Department of Education doesn’t do anything to take these issues seriously.”
Hayley Gorenberg, the deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, wanted the audience to know that transgender people can still take cases to court in states such as New York where there aren’t specific laws to protect transgender individuals.
“People are discriminated against all the time without knowing we have tools to fight,” she said.
The evening ended with a call to action. People were encouraged to sign a petition in support of ENDA. Everyone was also given information about New York State’s Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) that would protect against discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations and education. Those present were given phone numbers of State Assembly members on the Codes Committee who will be voting on the issue.
Marcy Farrell, who volunteers with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that panel gave “all of us enough courage to be public about our transgenderness and to advocate for understanding, to be seen as human beings, despite our gender issues.”
Maurice Harrison, who was also in the audience, wished that the event could have been held somewhere other than the LGBT Center. “We have problems with the heterosexual community,” Harrison said. “And they have no idea about these meetings.”
Leslie Gabel-Brett, director of education and public Affairs at Lambda Legal, said she hopes Santana’s and others’ stories “raise visibility of transgender issues, and generate more activism on the state and national level.”
As Santana said before the panel ended, “If I had transferred out of the school, I would have shown my bashers that they had won.”
Now Santana’s story is inspiring others to fight for transgender individuals.
This article originally appeared in the New York Blade on 18 May 2007; the Blade is now defunct.