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Transgender Rights

"We are human beings," one transgender activist repeated over and over at a recent vigil in Sheridan Square. Hundreds had gathered to remember Amanda Milan, 25, a transgendered woman who had been stabbed to death outside the Port Authority one year ago as some bystanders cheered their approval. The trial of Dwayne McCuller, Milan's alleged murderer, and his accomplices, is under way in Manhattan Criminal Court under the watchful eyes of the city's transgender rights groups, energized as never before by this brutal killing. They are now seeking inclusion in city and state human rights and hate crimes laws, fairness in the criminal justice system, increased social services, and more of a voice in the movement that they helped found.

While some of these goals are slow in coming, one of the community's largest institutions, the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, just officially added "Bisexual and Transgendered" to its name in time for its grand re-opening on July 12.

Transgendered people like Sylvia Rivera were among those who led the fight at the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion that sparked the modern gay movement and that is commemorated with a Fifth Avenue parade each year on the last Sunday in June. But for many years, "the gay and lesbian rights movement found us an embarrassment," said Diana Montford, a transgendered activist who has been the host of her own cable show (on Time-Warner's channel 57, Wednesdays at 3 PM) since 1990. "Now we're fed up," she said, "just like at Stonewall."

Montford said that she still gets "dirty looks" from some people, including gay men. But she was recently honored by Public Advocate Mark Green at his annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride ceremony at City Hall. At his pride fest, Comptroller Alan Hevesi honored Melissa Sklarz, the first transgendered person elected to public office in New York -- judicial delegate -- in 1999.

Rivera has reactivated Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries, born right after Stonewall, to provide some shock troops for the revived movement. She remembers when "cross-dressers" were cut out of the city's gay rights bill in 1974. That legislation became Local Law 2 in 1986 and added "sexual orientation" to the human rights law, defining it as "heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality."

While cities like Washington and Minneapolis included transsexuals in the term sexual orientation when they passed their ordinances in the early 1970s, New York activists (including myself) went with a safer definition in 1986, thinking that is what was needed to get the bill passed.

The New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy is working to see that protection for transgendered people is written into law, but must win over gay lobbyists as well as legislators. The state finally enacted a hate crimes law last year, but did not explicitly include transgendered people in it. "We're pushing for an amendment to it," said Pauline Park of the association.

Transgender activists also want an amendment to the city human rights law that would add the category of "gender identity and expression." Hearings were held on Intro 764 in May, but despite the fact that the bill has 27 sponsors, no vote is scheduled. Mayor Giuliani opposes the bill, saying that his Corporation Counsel has opined that transgendered people are covered under the existing categories of "gender" and "disability," a view shared by City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. But the bill is supported by all the Democratic mayoral contenders and Republican Mike Bloomberg who said "If it's already covered, there is no harm in spelling it out." A leading sponsor of 764, Council Member Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea) is hopeful that a vote will be held before the end of the year. Park is impatient: "We're faced with pervasive discrimination," she said, "including by the city and especially by the New York Police Department and the Human Resources Administration. Transgendered women, if legally male, are held in men's cells in jails. And in homeless shelters, they are forced into the men's shelters."

The state bill proposing to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is said, after being stalled for 31 years, to be near passage in the Republican-dominated State Senate, after overwhelming approval in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. But it, too, does not include gender identity.

Matt Foreman, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said: "If we could get gender identity into the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, we would," but wants to avoid last minute changes in order to "move it along and not open it up to any negative amendments." The strategy is to help get gender identity into local ordinances -- something that Rochester did in June -- before trying for it at the state level.

Park has accepted this strategy, but said, "It may be time to revisit that approach given the enormous amount of support in the City Council." Rivera, now 50, asks "Am I supposed to wait until I'm 80 to see my community achieve its rights?"

Dennis deLeon, chair of the City Commission on Human Rights under Mayor Dinkins and now director of the Latino Commission on AIDS, said, "There is so much misunderstanding of transgendered people' So many groups now covered under the human rights law have been misunderstood. And people cannot assume that because you do include the category in the law that they will exercise their rights. Very few gay cases have been filed over the years. There is tremendous need for community education, especially at places of employment. It's about educating equal employment officers in corporations."

The 7th Annual Gay & Lesbian Values Report of Best and Worst Company Employers just released by Out & Equal Workplace Advocates found only four of the Fortune 500--Apple,Avaya, Lucent and Xerox--in complete compliance with their standards, and that was because they include "gender identity" in their non-discrimination policies."

Nevertheless, progress has been made. Paul Schindler, editor of LGNY, the lesbian and gay biweekly,said, "It's amazing that in two years transgender activists have gone from a situation where Bill Bradley said, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' to Mike Bloomberg very casually saying he is against discrimination against transgendered people."

The most common complaints of transgendered people are job security, respect at places of public accommodation, and safety on the streets--things that would be addressed by inclusion in human rights and hate crimes legislation. Darren Rosenblum, a New York attorney, wrote of the plight of transgendered prisoners in the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law (volume 6, Issue 2) last year. He found incarcerated transgendered people "at society's bottom rung," and wrote that "their everyday survival" was a series of "heroic acts." Some are denied the hormone treatments that help them maintain their desired gender. Others are cast into brutally unsafe environments with other prisoners who have nothing but contempt for their status. "Their condition demonstrates flaws both multiple and fundamental in the hierarchization of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and deviance," he wrote.

Some of the newfound acceptance of transgendered people has come about due to the success of people like Tony-nominated playwright Charles Busch ("The Tale of the Allergist's Wife") who said " never wanted to be a woman, I just wanted to be an actress." He noted that Ru Paul has had "an enormous influence," taking cross-dressing mainstream on TV. While Busch and Paul are not transgendered, they express themselves in ways not considered culturally typical for their genders.

In the absence of explicit legal protections, human rights lawyers like Tom Shanahan do their best to defend the rights of transgendered people in court. He is suing the Twilo nightclub on behalf of two transgendered dancers who were fired, they say, because the club wanted "real women." And employees of Toys R Us in Manhattan are alleged to have chased two transgendered clients out with baseball bats earlier this year.

The Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project recorded a doubling of reports of incidents of violence against transgendered people in the past year, a rise that Clarence Patton attributes to "greater awareness" in the transgender community that if these crimes are reported they will be taken more seriously. The Anti-Violence Project has been pressing the Manhattan District Attorney's office to handle the Amanda Milan case with greater sensitivity than some past cases. Last year, project director Richard Haymes said, the defense attorney for a man accused of murdering Fitzroy Green, a transgendered man, pointed to the transgendered witnesses in the case and told the jury that if they could not trust these people to baby-sit for their kids, they should not credit their testimony. The DA did not object and the defendant walked.

"Who the victim is often determines whether or not there will be justice," Councilmember Quinn said at a rally for Amanda Milan.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.

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