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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


New Year's Show Sparks Controversy

Photo courtesy of Best Chinese Shows.

A Chinese New Year show at the Radio City Music Hall has stirred up some controversies after the New York Times ran a critical review of the show, saying the show's Falun Gong theme alienated some people in the audience.

The variety show, titled "Chinese New Year Splendor," included elaborate traditional Chinese music and dance productions featuring dozens of acrobatic dancers, drummers and a large screen that provided Chinese landscapes as backdrops. The first few numbers proved to be spectacular performances. But a third of the way into the show, Falun Gong references began to appear as three dancers on stage portraying Falun Gong practitioners were beaten up by prison guards. The backdrop of the piece had the Chinese writing "Falun Dafa is good" on it. Falun Gong, a spiritual movement strongly opposed by the Beijing government, is also known as Falun Dafa.

Meanwhile, between dance numbers, four vocalists performed songs that included lyrics to promote Falun Gong's teachings and denounce China's persecution of the group. In a number that resembles Falun Gong's street theater called "The Power of Awareness," communist police harassed a mother and her daughter practicing Falun Gong in the park. Eventually a group of bystanders chased the police away. At the end of the piece, the message became loud and clear as dozens of dancers performed Falun Gong movements in unison with its three principles - truthfulness, compassion and forbearance -- written in gigantic Chinese characters in the backdrop.

The Times article, written by reporter Eric Konigsberg, said dozens of people in the audience, perhaps a few hundred, left the show after the prison number and at intermission because they had realized that it "was not simply a celebration of the Chinese New Year, but an outreach of Falun Gong." The reporter quoted audience members who were troubled by the Falun Gong material.

"I had no idea it was Falun Gong until now that it's too late, and it really bums me out," said Steven, a Chinese immigrant living in New Jersey who was among the first to leave the show and asked that his last name not be published.

"I don't feel comfortable here," said Elizabeth Levy, another audience member, as quoted in the article. "I had no idea when I came that this was about Falun Gong."

Eye on a Controversy

Falun Gong is a Tai Chi-like spiritual movement and breathing exercise that gained immense popularity in Mainland China in the early 1990s. It was banned in 1999 by the Chinese government, which declared it "an evil cult." Tens of thousands of practitioners are reported to have been tortured and sent to re-education camps. Since the crackdown, practitioners from around the world have started an international campaign to call attention to China's human rights violation. Many Chinese Falun Gong practitioners have gained permanent residency in the United States through political asylum. The founder of Falun Gong, Hongzhi Li, is believed to reside in New York City.

Inside China, however, media outlets and government offices often produce anti-Falun Gong propaganda campaigns, claiming that many practitioners troubled by health problems have died because they followed Li's teachings and refused medical treatment. They also contend that hundreds have committed self-mutilation or suicide because they wanted to attain "all-round fulfillment" -- a claim by its founder.

Meanwhile, Falun Gong remains a controversial subject in the Chinese immigrant community in New York and other U.S. cities as parties on both sides of the fence try to prove their legitimacy. For many years, Falun Gong groups were not permitted to march in the New Year parade in various Chinatowns because of pressure from the Chinese Embassy or the fear from organizers that they would be labeled as Falun Gong sympathizers. This year, Falun Gong practitioners participated in the parade in Flushing, Queens but were excluded in San Francisco.

The performance at the center of the current dispute is presented by New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a New York-based independent, non-profit television station founded by a group of professionals and businessmen in 2001 who commonly practice Falun Gong. It is the station's fifth year running the New Year show. In addition to regular programming ranging from news and entertainment to sports, the station frequently highlights news about China's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. The station prides itself for providing "truthful and uncensored" information about China.

The show, performed by the Divine Performing Arts of New York, is touring in 16 cities in Europe, 17 cities in the Asia-Pacific region and more than 30 cities in North America.

But while NTDTV claims to be independent, some Chinese people in New York disagree, calling it a "mouthpiece" of Falun Gong. The Chinese Culture Club and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at New York University started an online petition last year to stop NTDTV from using one of the university's performing arts centers for a dance contest. The website received more than 850 postings, and many petitioners said NTDTV is anti-China and echoed the Chinese government's official stance that Falun Gong is deceiving and evil.

Falun Gong Responds

The New York Times article, published on February 6, immediately drew angry reaction from the Falun Gong community. The Epoch Times, a New York-based newspaper critical of the Chinese government and a media sponsor of the show, has run dozens of articles denouncing the New York Times' coverage.

In one published on February 14 under the headline "The New York Times Parrots Communist Party Line," Carrie Hung, a spokesperson for the television station, objected to the impression the New York Times article gave the show's content. "The New York Times' quotes from the audience members make Splendor seem to be a show all about Falun Gong," she told the Epoch Times. "It is not. The show is about discovering and reviving authentic Chinese traditional culture and values. ... The performances incorporate elements from Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as Falun Gong, and from various ethnic traditions and different dynasties."

Meanwhile, NTDTV released a photo report on the last show that took place on February 9. Titled "Final 'Splendor' Show Packed After NY Times Article," it featured pictures that showed a capacity audience and a video that included testimonials from audience members who raved about the performance.

Taking It to the Blogosphere

The show and the Times article also generated a heated debated among bloggers.

"We were expecting a night of dance and music, but got this crappy propaganda piece with so-so dancing and the worst lyrics you've ever heard," wrote Angrygod101 on Gothamist, a popular blog about New York. "A good chunk of the show consisted of solo singers belting out FG propaganda songs accompanied by a pianist. I would have walked out too, if I could."

Another blogger, Makina, defended the show's artistic discretion. "If the artists must use their art to project a message, I'm all for it," wrote Makina. "It's been done before and the art is the language of the heart -- to express suffering is part of it."

Jordan Hoffman, a filmmaker and tour guide, said he felt deceived, as there was no mentioning of Falun Gong in the show's publicity. "What I thought would be an energetic, bright and musical show filled with dragons, drums and excitement turned out to be what I imagine a Carnival Cruise is like if controlled by the Falun Gong," he wrote in his blog.

"Truly I felt like I was tied down by the Falun Gong and made to watch this," commented Lisa Latimer on Hoffman's blog. "This was an obvious fundraiser and it should have been marketed as such. ... I don't like it when people get me to spend money under false pretenses."

But some people said they did not find fault with the show's content.

"The Chinese Splendor show mentioned truthfulness - compassion - tolerance," wrote Jean, a blogger and a mother of five. "Wouldn't this world be a much better place if we all tried to handle each other with compassion and tolerance? As for the performances that dealt with the abuses taking place in China against Falun Gong, it's now already a part of Chinese history, and is no more inappropriate a subject matter for the stage than, say, 'Fiddler On the Roof,' which dealt with the oppression of the Jews."

Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Washington has repeatedly denounced the show. It released a statement before the show began its run in New York, calling on people to stay away from the "so-called Chinese New Year Gala." "Such 'galas,' with their pretentious mystification, were patchworks of programs with low artistic value and were full of implied preaching of cult doctrine and attacks on the Chinese Government," the statement reads. "They were an insult and distortion of the Chinese culture and a deception to the audience."

The New York Times has not made any public statement on the controversy. But it published a letter to the editor from Zhong Lee, president of NTDTV, on February 15.

"One of the basic freedoms central to the United States is freedom of expression," Lee wrote. "You should not find it so shocking that a Chinese culture show produced in the United States includes some reference to China's human rights issues."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.



Trouble on the "Immigrant Express"

After three weekends of disrupted service between Woodside and Flushing because of installation of new signaling and track switches, the 7 train resumed local service in February, to the huge relief of commuters and immigrants getting ready for the Lunar New Year celebration. Express service remains suspended until March for the entire line.

Running along 19 miles from Times Square to Flushing, Queens, the 7 train serves 24 stations and nearly 400,000 riders a day. It is known as the "immigrant express" or "international express" because it goes through neighborhoods occupied by people representing more than 150 nations. While politicians and local merchants welcomed the return of the 7 train, many who depend on the subway fault the crowding and delays and think, even when it is running at full service, the train leaves a lot to be desired.

Back in Service

The return of service is particularly good news for residents in Flushing, a primarily Chinese and Korean enclave, as well as other immigrants who travel to specialty stores there to prepare for the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 7 this year. John Liu, the City Council member who represents Flushing, told the Daily News that the area's economy would have taken an even bigger hit if the 7 train had not run the first two weekends of February, the biggest shopping days of the year in the area. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's move was in response to requests from local politicians and.

"The MTA is understanding and cooperating with the businesses," Liu said.

"Our track department performed above and beyond our expectations," Steven Feil, senior vice president for subways at NYC Transit, said in a press release. The repair work, originally scheduled for five weekends, was completed ahead of schedule due to favorable weather.

During the first weekend with the 7 train back in service, Flushing was in chaos as many people rushed back to do their Lunar New Year shopping. According to the Chinese-language World Journal, a parking space was hard to find while the streets were filled with traffic and frustrated drivers. Some people did not know about the restored service and boarded the Long Island Rail Road without a ticket, thinking it was still free between New York Penn Station and Flushing.

The installation of the new equipment represents the second phase of a $76 million capital program to improve and upgrade the subway infrastructure along the Flushing line.

To provide alternative service when the 7 was not in service, the MTA ran shuttle buses between Woodside and Flushing. The Long Island Rail Road provided free rides between New York Penn Station and Flushing. The disruption confused many passengers, but most were able to find their way to the shuttle bus. Bilingual MTA workers were available to help riders who speak little English.

Chronic Pain

Even when it runs on weekends, a ride on the 7 train is never exactly smooth. Riders' blogs on the Straphangers website offer an array of complaints about the 7 train.

"At 6 p.m. today, I was at Grand Central station and there was hardly room to move on the platform," wrote Averie. "I don't mind the wait as much as I saw the safety hazard that prevailed on a crowded platform since both the Times Square-bound and Queens-bound trains both were not there to alleviate this human gridlock."

"One of the worst trains ever, and the only train out of Flushing forcing those of us that live there to take his horribly over crowded, smelly train," wrote Jen W. on Yelp, a review Web site on New York. "It's never on time. There are always delays. I don't care that you apologize for the delay, how about you apologize to my boss for me getting there late? Are you going to subsidize the pay my boss is going to dock from me? Probably not."

Some bloggers believe that the riders of the 7 train are underserved because they are mostly immigrants and working class.

"The subway system in New York City is unlike any other. It's a subway system in which people's livelihoods depend on - rich and poor," wrote a blogger named Cheeseburger 9000. "The subway was built for everyone, not simply for the rich folks living on the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side that have to get to their important jobs in midtown and downtown."

"What is not recognized and valued is that thousands upon thousands of the city's workers come in from Queens," wrote Mariposa7 on the Straphangers blog. "This is not racism on the part of the MTA. This is classism, which unfortunately reeks of racism because the poorer class in this city is mostly made up of black and Latino citizens, immigrants included."

Service Improvements

In an effort to make things better, the MTA last December named a general manager for the 7 and the L trains. The move is part of an overall effort to decentralize the system by appointing managers who are responsible for virtually all elements of the day-to-day operations of the lines, overseeing everything from announcements to station cleanliness.

The MTA has also been asking riders to grade their subway lines. In the rider survey conducted last year, the 7 train received a C minus, with most riders citing severe crowding at rush hour. Among the 24 subway lines, only the C, E, W, G and the Rockaway Shuttle trains received a worse grade.

Lou Brusati, the line general manager for the 7 train and a veteran MTA supervisor, said he thought the 7's grade was fair but declined to give the train a grade himself. "New Yorkers are a tough crowd...in a good way," he said. "People have high expectations and they feel that we can do better."

Brusati added that he would focus on station cleanliness and the reliability of service. Starting next month, he will conduct a series of "meet and greets" at various stations and listen to the riders' concerns.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  

Race Matters in New York

Most New Yorkers think of racism as yesterday's news. They prefer to think we have moved beyond not just the city's dependence on slavery, its attempts to remain neutral in the Civil War so it could keep trading with the Confederacy, and Draft Riots that saw black people strung up from lampposts, but also the kind of contemporary blatant racial attacks that turn thousands of protesters out in the streets led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

When the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee is Harlem's own Charlie Rangel and Time Warner and Merrill Lynch -- not to mention the city itself -- have been led by black men (Richard Parsons, Stanley O'Neal, and David Dinkins respectively), most people think that overt racism is a thing of the past or, at worst, an isolated problem -- especially when an African American named Barack Obama could very well become the next president of the United States.

But evidence to the contrary persists. Just ask yourself who is homeless in New York, who the beggars are on the street and who does the lowest wage and hardest jobs from checking your groceries and emptying bedpans to cleaning your office.

The report from the Urban Justice Center's Human Rights Project goes beyond such anecdotal evidence. Presented at a forum in mid-December the study documents how even in multicultural New York, we have a long, long way to go before race no longer matters.

The report, "Race Realities in New York City," covers employment, health, criminal justice, immigration, education, voting rights, domestic violence, housing, and child welfare. The study by leaders of non-governmental organizations was prepared under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a human rights treaty that the United States has ratified. Under the terms of that agreement, the Bush administration issued a report earlier this year on how it is dealing with racial disparities in the United States, but the Urban Justice Center cited the thinness of that official report, especially for failing to note "the government's disgraceful response to Hurricane Katrina" or the issue of police brutality. "Moreover," the center report says, "despite persistent racial discrimination that affects thousands of New Yorkers, the U.S. report contains very little New York City-specific information."

The Report's Findings

The center's 131-page report is an attempt to supplement that. And in doing so, it presents a stark picture of racial disparities. For example, it notes that "98 percent of 17,000 children in foster care in New York City are black and Latino." It also makes note of what it calls the "school to prison pipeline," which it describes as a "nationwide system of policies that pushes students from the school system into the juvenile justice system."

To start with, students of color are disproportionately suspended for the same infractions: 8.3 percent of all black students, 4.8 percent of Latinos and 2.5 percent of whites in the 2001 school year according to a recent report by Elizabeth Sullivan, "Deprived Of Dignity: Degrading Treatment And Abusive Discipline In New York And Los Angeles Public Schools" from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

In addition, according to the Urban Justice Center, "In 2006, 43 percent of black students and 41 percent of Latino students in New York City graduated on time, compared to 67 percent of white students and 68 percent of Asian students."

In employment, African Americans, Latinos and Asians "make up 37 percent, 16 percent and 4 percent respectively of the city's workforce," but hold just 18 percent of the senior and executive staff positions.

African Americans and Latinos comprise about half the population of the city, but account for 91 percent of those in jail. In 2006, half of all police stops were of African Americans, 29 percent were of Latinos and 11 percent were of whites. The report says that this occurred despite the fact that "white suspects were 70 percent more likely than black suspects to have a weapon."

The infant mortality rate is 10.5 per 1,000 live births for African Americans and 5.9 for whites. Women of color have three times the HIV rate of white women. The vast majority of domestic violence victims are women of color. The list goes on and on.

Looking for Solutions

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was making his tour of the Far East when the Urban Justice Center released the report. It hopes that he and the City Council will adopt international human rights principles in looking at whether New York City is plagued by racial disparities and what it can do about it.

In light of persistent racial disparities, the Urban Justice Center, in coalition with other groups, for several years has been trying to pass a City Council bill that would go beyond protecting individuals who can prove they have been illegally discriminated against and move toward remedying systemic discrimination. The measure, called the Human Rights in Government Operations Audit Law, would require city agencies to "disaggregate data" at least on the basis of race and sex and, when appropriate, on immigration status, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The measure is currently stalled. Bill Perkins, who is now a state senator, originally sponsored the bill. He has on called for getting the 2009 mayoral candidates to support the measure. The bill's current sponsor, Councilmember Helen Foster of the Bronx, in a passionate address at the December forum, highlighted the racial dimensions of everything from stadium siting to congestion pricing, which she said would lead people to park their cars in Harlem and other neighborhoods of color to avoid fees.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

What Three Million Immigrants Do

A college graduate from Beijing who studies hotel management and culinary art, Zhen Zhang moved to New York in 1993 with dreams of opening his own hotel. Although that idea never materialized, he now runs a successful travel agency in Flushing, Queens.

" New York is a city that is full of opportunities," Zhang said. "Here, as long as you are willing to work hard, you will have a better future. You run into language and cultural barriers but you learn to adapt."

Zhang is among the 3 million immigrants living in New York City. Like the majority of them, he works hard and pays taxes. Now his contribution to the society is reaffirmed by a study, titled "Working for a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy." It concluded that immigrants contribute nearly one fourth of the economic output of New York State. Their contribution is even greater in New York City, where their share of wages is 37 percent of total earnings by residents.

" These numbers should wipe away any impression that immigrants are holding the New York economy back," said David Kallick, a senior fellow at the institute and the principal author of the study. "In fact, immigrants are a central component of New York’s economic growth."

The study, conducted over the past year, was released on November 26, less than two weeks after New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer dropped his controversial plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants that stirred up a national debate. It is prepared by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a private research organization, as part of a joint project on "The Truth about Immigrants" with the New York Immigrant Coalition.

" We just felt like there was such a deep misunderstanding about who immigrants were that the political discourse often got far afield from any factual basis of what’s really going on here," Kallick told the New York Times. "

" This report clearly proves that immigrants fuel growth and vitality in every economic sector and every geographic area in New York," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director or the New York Immigration Coalition. "For us to maximize immigrant contributions to the economy, we must stop treating immigrants like criminals and terrorists. Instead, we need to change our immigration law so that undocumented immigrants can come out of the shadows of the underground economy and future immigrant workers ca immigrate legally to fill jobs that our economy requires."

Breaking the Stereotypes

In New York City, foreign-born residents account for 37 percent of the population. The national average is 12 percent. These immigrants are not limited to the low-wage, low-skill work often associated with them. According to the study, in New York City, immigrants make up a quarter of all chief executives, half of accountants, a third of financial managers and four out of 10 architects. They account for half of the city's doctors and six out of 10 registered nurses. In addition, more than a third of college professors are immigrants and so are more than half of all computer programmers.

Steven Michaels, an immigrant from Greece and a former comptroller of a major financial firm, said about 20 percent of the employees in his former company are foreign-born and highly educated.

" Many of them earned their MBAs here and hold middle and upper management positions," said Michaels, currently an independent financial consultant. "Leaving their families and social circles to start over in a foreign country, they have to work hard in order to be successful. They absolutely make great contribution to the economy."

" Immigrants’ contribution to economic output in New York State is about the same as their share of the population," said James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute. "That’s because immigrants start businesses, invest in New York and work in jobs all across the economic spectrum – the same as other New Yorkers."

In the Labor Force

According to the study, about 28.5 percent of all immigrants live in families with an income of between $40,000 and $80,000. Immigrants tend to have incomes in this middle range, while native-born families tend to be more concentrated at the top and bottom of the income spectrum.

In addition, immigrants have a higher work force participation rate than other Americans. Sixty-four percent of immigrants are in the labor force, compared to 60 percent of New York City residents born in the United States. Immigrants work longer hours – slightly above one hour a week more than native-born workers. And they tend to have more workers in each family – 44 percent of immigrant families have two or more family members that work, compared to 28 percent of native-born families.

Illegal immigrants, the center of the furor over Spitzer’s former license plan, were also included in the study through collaboration with the Pew Hispanic Center and Urban Institute. Immigrants without proper documentation make up about 18 percent of all immigrants in New York City, totaling at 535,000. Among them, 374,000 people are in the work force, showing a labor participation rate as high as 70 percent.

Urban Revival

Immigrants have contributed to New York City’s rebirth over the last 25 years. Because of the fiscal crisis and population decline in the 1970s, New York City’s population dropped to a record-low 7 million in the 1980 Census. The city's population reached 8.2 million in 2005 and is projected to continue to grow, partly because of immigration.

Asian immigrants are the fastest-growing group, making up 23 percent of all immigrants. Blacks are 21 percent with many newcomers from the Caribbean and Africa. Whites account for 23 percent with a big influx of Eastern Europeans, while Hispanics are 31 percent. The top five countries of birth for immigrants are the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Mexico and Guyana.

Beyond working, these immigrants contribute to the economic vitality of the city in other ways. For example, 34 percent of immigrants live in hoes they own, a rate close to that of their native-born counterparts.

Newcomers to the city have opened businesses across New York, particularly in its many ethnic enclaves. Immigrants own a variety of businesses -- grocery stores, nail salons, newsstands and restaurants, to name a few-- that create employment and generate tax revenue. In Flushing, Queens, where Chinese and Korean signs can be seen everywhere, the number of businesses grew 54.6 percent between 1994 and 2004. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Spanish is the primary language, more than 500 new businesses were established during the same period of time.


More and more immigrants have some form of higher education, the study found. In 1980s, only about 30 percent have received some college education. That number grew to 52 percent in 2005. The study also found that immigrants from Asia have considerably higher college graduation rates than native-born residents, while groups from Latin America, Caribbean and Mexico, have considerably lower educational levels.

" No matter if it is low-skill or high-skill work, immigrants fill the positions that Americans refused to take or simply could not do," said Keju Ma, a Canadian citizen who works for Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. "They fill the gap. That is significant contribution to the American economy."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  





















New York Plays Key Role in Fight for Transgender Rights

As the debate over civil rights protections on the basis of “gender identity and expression” heated up in Congress, five of New York City’s members in the House of Representative voted against the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act on November 7 because it does not cover transgendered people. At the same time, pressure is building in Albany for at least the Democrat-controlled Assembly to add gender identity to the state human rights law, which incorporated protections for gay people in 2002 while defeating an amendment covering people of transgender experience. In New York City, where the city law has covered gender identity since 2002, transgendered people still encounter persistent discrimination, putting this new civil rights measure to the test.

The City Law

New York City was late among major cities in adding sexual orientation to its human rights law. It did not pass what was known as the “gay rights bill” until 1986 and took until 2002 to add gender identity. Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund called the city law “great,” but said, “That doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go.”

Silverman said that while much of the discrimination that many New Yorkers experience tends to be subtle, people who are transgendered still are subject to discrimination that is “so obvious and degrading” that it is hard to believe.

He is handling a complaint now from a person whose license was marked “M” for male even though she presents as a woman. When she showed identification to get served in a bar, the manager said, “Your ID says male. I can’t accept that.”

“ It’s certainly OK to ask to see an ID to verify a person’s age,” Silverman said, but it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity or expression. In response to her compliant, a police officer went to the bar on the border of Chelsea and Greenwich Village. Although sympathetic, the officer said, “We can’t do anything.”

On the last Sunday in June, Khadijah Farmer, a lesbian with close-cropped hair, was using the women’s restroom at the Caliente Cab Company in the Village when a male bouncer burst in and banged on her stall door demanding that she leave. Farmer said she tried to show the man her license identifying her as female, but the bouncer wouldn’t look at it. He threw Farmer and her friends out, making them pay for food they had just started eating. Ironically the incident took place on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Day just south of Sheridan Square where the Stonewall Rebellion launched the modern gay movement in 1969.

Representatives of the restaurant deny Farmer’s version of events, but refuse to offer one of their own. The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund is suing the Caliente Cab Company and transgendered people and their supporters have picketed it. The establishment has not, however, been put out business by an angry community

Melissa Sklarz, a veteran transgender political activist, served on a committee at the City Human Rights Commission that worked on guidelines for implementing the city transgender rights law and believes “more and more people are aware of the law now.” But, she said, “For the law to work, we need courageous people like Khadijah Farmer who are willing to stand up.”

As the Farmer case illustrates, you do not have to be a transsexual or a transitioning transperson to need the protection under the category of gender identity and expression. Farmer says she is happy being a woman, even if her style of dress and grooming lead some people to mistake her for a man. Indeed, we all cross traditional gender boundaries in small and sometimes large ways, from women who wear pants and men who wear makeup to women who fight wars and men who won’t.

Beyond the question of discrimination, these issues have very practical implications, particularly in this era when everyone must constantly show identification. Joann Prinzivalli, director of the New York Transgender Rights Organization and a transwoman, has a driver’s license that says “female.” The license was issued before 2002 when people had to have completed transgender surgery to be identified in accordance with their identity and not their biology. New York State will also change the designation on a birth certificate if one is post-operative.

But Prinzivalli’s passport still says “male” and by 2013, we are all going need a passport or federal REAL ID for air travel even within the United States and to enter federal buildings. In those cases, her gender presentation will not line up with how she is identified on her papers. “I’ll be shut out of air transportation,” she said. In the politically explosive debate over identification documents mostly dealing with undocumented immigrants, the concerns of transpeople are not considered.

Legislature Resists Transgender Protections

The Republican-led New York State Senate finally added sexual orientation to the state human rights law in 2002. But the Senate remains resistant to protecting transgendered people. It will not take up school anti-bullying legislation that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has said he is not interested in protecting, as he put it, “transvestites.” The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act has not so much as had a hearing in his house.

For its part, the Democrat-dominated Assembly voted to open up marriage to same-sex couples earlier this year. However the Assembly, under Speaker Sheldon Silver, has refused to take up amending the state human rights law to add “gender identity and expression.”

The Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s gay and transgender lobby group, has made the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act its number one priority in the Assembly next year, according to Joe Tarver, communications director for the group. The bill, he said, now has 72 sponsors and 95 members committed to vote for it on the floor. Seventy-six votes are needed for passage.

Tarver noted that on October 1, the state Democratic Party approved a resolution supporting the bill. That together with the debate over transgender inclusion in the federal civil rights bill “are raising consciousness about what it means to be discriminated against based on gender identity,” he said. “It’s in the news and the political establishment is paying attention,” much the way they did to the marriage issue.

On average, according to Dan Pinello of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, states that pass laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation wait another 14 years before adding protections based on gender identity—a legal term that was not even coined when Wisconsin became the first state to pass a gay rights law in 1982. Sklarz and Tarver believe that, it is going to take the election of a Democratic Senate for the bill to clear the legislature.

The last three states to pass gay rights laws—Colorado, Iowa and Oregon-–covered gender identity at the same time.

The Fight in Washington

In the 1970s, New York Representatives Ed Koch and Bella Abzug were among the first sponsors of a federal bill to add sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The idea attracted more and more sponsors over the years, but never got a hearing in Congress.

In 1994, a scaled-down version of the federal gay rights bill was introduced covering only most forms of employment and not housing or public accommodations. Supported by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act also went nowhere.

In 2004, out gay Representative Barney Frank and the chief lobbyists for the bill at the Human Rights Campaign bowed to growing insistence by gay and transgendered activists across the country and included transgender protections in the bill. It, too, languished in the Republican-controlled House

But this year, just before it was to come up for a vote in the new Democratic-led Congress, Frank announced that the votes were not there for gender identity and he introduced a bill without protection for transgendered people. He said Congress could add gender identity to the law sometime in the future.

A national uproar in the gay and transgender movements ensued. More than 300 groups, led by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and including most statewide advocacy groups such as New York’s Pride Agenda, formed a coalition called United ENDA demanding that transgender protections be restored and that any bill without it be defeated.

New York Representative Jerry Nadler was the first member of Congress to announce he disagreed with Frank’s strategy. Nadler argues against splitting gender identity from sexual orientation—especially since President George W. Bush would veto a bill covering either.

When Frank’s gay-only bill was approved in committee last month, four liberal Democrats, including Representative Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn, voted against it because it did not include gender identity protections. Representative Anthony Wiener of Brooklyn and Queens has endorsed the stand taken by Nadler and Clarke.

The House approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act covering only sexual orientation on November 7 by a vote of 235-184. An amendment to cover gender identity was offered by out lesbian Representative Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, and withdrawn.

When the bill reached the House floor, New York Representatives Nadia Velazquez and Edolphus Towns joined Nadler, Clarke and Weiner in voting against it because of its failure to protect transgendered people. Nadler said in a statement that, if Baldwin's amendment failed, "I will not be able to vote for the underlying bill because it fails to uphold the American values of fairness and equality.” He also said, "Splitting sexual orientation and gender identity disserves the entire LGBT community and invites the kind of legal mischief that has undermined other civil rights laws."

The most extraordinary thing about this whole debate is the way in which it demonstrates how the gay rights movement has embraced people of transgender experience and how the category of gender identity is now seen as essential not just to protecting transpeople, but gays and lesbians as well. Indeed, the New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund wrote a lengthy attack on Frank’s stripped-down bill making these points. Whatever happens, as I wrotein the Gay City News, the current debate on transgender rights presents a unique opportunity to educate the American public about how prejudices about the way all of us -- transgendered or not, gay or straight – present our gender can create inequities in the workplace and beyond.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.


Latest License Plan Angers Almost Everyone

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has been in the national spotlight since his controversial announcement in September that he would grant undocumented immigrants driver's licenses. In the face of strong criticism from the Republicans and dropping approval ratings in opinion polls, late last month Spitzer offered a new plan - a three-tiered policy that will offer different licenses for people with various immigration status.

This time, Spitzer found himself a powerful partner and supporter- the Department of Homeland Security. But a number of people who backed the initial proposal, including many immigrant rights groups, are angry at what they see as a betrayal. And many who opposed the initial proposal do not like this one either.

A Federal Seal of Approval

In a joint press conference with Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, Spitzer unveiled his new license plan, five weeks after he introduced his initial proposal to offer a driver's license to any New Yorker who wanted one, regardless of immigration status. Under the revised plan, American citizens and legal residents will be able to apply for a license that meet the requirements of the REAL ID Act. This would allow them to board a plane and enter federal buildings. A second type of license, also available to citizens and legal residents, will allow its holders to cross New York-Canadian border without carrying a passport. Both licenses are federally approved.

But the real controversy surrounds the third kind of license. It is available to undocumented immigrants as well as legal residents and citizens who choose not to have the first two types of licenses. This license is only valid for driving and insurance. It will be marked "Not for U.S. government purposes."

" The comprehensive plan we have developed makes our state more secure by bringing more people into the system and provides the greatest number of people with the greatest amount of security possible," said Spitzer. "The new system provides New Yorkers with the option of three secure licenses that will offer New Yorkers maximum choices for driver's licenses, uphold the strictest security standard and ensure the economic vitality of Upstate New York."

Chertoff, while saying he does not endorse giving licenses to people who are not here legally, added that federal law does allow states to make that choice. “What we can do is insist that licenses that do not meet federal requirements be clearly so labeled,” said Chertoff. “New York has agreed to do that. In sum, that clarification, along with implementing REAL ID and enhanced driver’s licenses, represents a major step forward for security, both for New York and for the country. Accordingly, I’m pleased to have reached this agreement.”

A Boost for the REAL ID

Despite the governor's insistence that he did not change his policy due to the heavy opposition, the new plan is widely seen as a compromise between a governor who is desperately seeking support from his own constituency and a federal agency that is struggling to persuade states to adopt a stricter license program that sets national standards for state-issued identification cards. These could be issued only to applicants who can prove citizenship or legal immigration status.

That program is based on the REAL ID Act. Initiated by a recommendation from the 9/11 commission, the REAL ID aims to set = stricter and standardized regulations in an effort to keep terrorists and illegal immigrants from getting U.S. identification cards or driver's licenses. Once the program is implemented, all ID holders of state identification cards and driver’s licenses will have to renew them in person by 2013. The will be required to present a form of photo identification and documents proving date of birth, Social Security number (or verification of ineligibility) and proof of residence.

Critics of the program have cited privacy concerns and threat of identity theft and say the REAL ID could cost more than $10 billion a year. Seventeen states have passed laws to rejecting it. Winning support from a big state like New York could be a big boost for the REAL ID.

Creating Controversy

The political storm over the license plan has presented Spitzer with him biggest challenge in his 10-month-old governorship. According to a poll by Siena Research Institute, 72 percent of New Yorkers did not support Spitzer’s original plan. His approval rate has fallen to 42 percent.

And the debate has entered the presidential campaign. Senator Hilary Clinton, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential candidacy, stumbled when asked about Spitzer’s proposal during the Democratic candidates debate in Philadelphia on October 30.

" What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform," said Clinton during the televised debate. "Well, I just want to add, I did not say it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do."

The remark, supportive but vague, immediately drew criticism from her Democratic competitors as well as Republican presidential hopefuls. Both former Senator Carolina John Edwards and Senator of Barack Obama went after her during the debate.

“ Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of two minutes just a few minutes ago,” said Edwards.

“ I was confused on Senator Clinton’s answer. I can’t tell whether she was for it or against it,” Obama said.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was especially harsh. He told reporters in New Hampshire: "She is known for taking one position with one audience and another position with another audience. ...What they didn't know is she can actually take two positions in front of the same audience."

To quickly control the damage, Clinton officially voiced her support for Spitzer's three-tier plan just a few hours after her appearance at the debate.

" Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform," her campaign said in a statement. "As president, her goal will be to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would make this unnecessary."

“ Senator Clinton broadly supports measures like the ones being advocated by Governor Spitzer,” added Clinton spokesperson Phil Singer. “But there are details that still need to be worked out.”

A Scarlet ‘I’

Clinton may not be clear where she stands on the latest version of Spitzer’s plan. But groups representing immigrants have left no doubt of their position: They do not like it.

Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, called the lower-tiered license “scarlet letter” for illegal immigrants, and the governor’s change of plan “complete betrayal.”

“ What a political flip,” said Hong, who organized a protest on October 28. “He’s now embracing and letting his good name be used to promote something that has been widely known in the immigrant community as one of the most anti-immigrant pieces of legislation to come out of Congress.”

John Liu, the City Council member from Flushing, Queens, who also attended the rally, said he was confused by the governor’s change of position.

“ Now the new development is not going to help the situation in terms of making sure people are properly licensed and insured to operate motor vehicles,” Liu said. “This is a new segregation in New York.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of New York Civil Liberties Union, said the separate license could be an invitation for law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants who carry it.

“ Real ID -- a national ID card -- will facilitate the tracking of Americans’ movements,” said Lieberman in a prepared statement. “Each swipe of the card will leave a digital fingerprint that can be centralized into one national database to track Americans’ activities. Coming from the administration that brought us the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping, the possibilities are endless, as is the potential for abuse.”

Those Opposed Stay Opposed

Meanwhile, many people who were against Spitzer’s original license plan do not like the three-tiered plan either.

This includes Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had come out against the initial idea. When asked about the new one, the mayor told CNN, “I still don’t think that is where we need to be.” In particular, Bloomberg expressed concern about whether any of the three licenses would enable a person to buy a gun. Previously David Swartz, state commissioner of motor vehicles, had indicated the license for undocumented immigrants would be sufficient identification for purchasing a firearm. Sources in the governor's office denied this.

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, a member of the New York State Association of County Clerks who had filed a lawsuit against the original plan, said the suit would continue – despite Spitzer’s revisions. In counties outside New York City, Long Island, and Westchester, county clerk offices act as agents of the DMV to issue driver’s license. Some clerks have vowed not to issue licenses to people who cannot prove they are in the country legally.

" He hasn't changed anything," Merola said of Spitzer and his three-license proposal. "He's still looking to do the same thing that he was looking to do a month ago."

The State Senate, with a Republican majority, also passed legislation to overturn Spitzer’s plan. But the bill will most likely fail in the Democrat-dominated State Assembly. For their part, Republicans in the Assembly have said they will file a lawsuit to stop what they call as "illegal plan.” which was announced Saturday. The Republican leader of the Assembly, James Tedisco, said issuing licenses to undocumented immigrant would "make our state and nation a less secure, less safe place."

Responding to Spitzer’s latest proposal, Tedisco said, “"What he's done is make more people upset from both sides — those that supported him and those who were against him."

The governor plans to implement the three-tier licenses next year.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  

Driver's Licenses for the Undocumented

Jola Z. wishes she could drive her kids to Six Flags one day. But with an expired U.S. tourist visa, the Polish native is not eligible to apply for a driver's license. Working under the table as a nanny since her arrival in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in January 2006, Jola (who would not give her full name) wants a car not for herself, but for her family.

"In Poland, people usually have one car per family," she said. "My husband used to love to drive, and my son would love to have it, too."

Now New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has granted her wish. He has announced that people applying for a driver's license will no longer have to show proof of legal immigration status. The policy will also introduce new anti-fraud measures, including a program to verify foreign passports and photo comparison technology that will prevent duplication of IDs.

Spitzer called the move a "common sense" change, saying the measure deals with the reality that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants live in the state. "Allowing them the opportunity to obtain driver's license in a responsive and secure manner will help increase public safety," he said.

His decision, though, has set off vociferous opposition particularly from Republican politicians, but also from some Democrats, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a number of the officials who would have to put the policy into effect.

Behind the Change

In announcing the new policy, Spitzer abolished a 2002 executive order from Republican Governor George Pataki that required license applicants to submit a Social Security number or proof that they are ineligible for one.

Spitzer has painted the move largely as a public safety effort. The change, he has said, will "increase the security of our license system by obtaining better and more verifiable information from applicants, which decrease the number of uninsured drivers on the roads, lower auto insurance rates for all drivers, and, when necessary help law enforcement agencies in their investigations."

Unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be in a fatal crash than licensed drivers, according to the a report titled "Unlicensed to Kill" by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a Washington D.C.-based research and educational organization,.

The New York Department of Insurance estimates that expanded access to driver's licenses will reduce the premium costs associated with uninsured motorist coverage by 34 percent, which will save New York drivers a total of $120 million a year.

"The policy change allows the Department of Motor Vehicles to focus its resources on its core mission -- to ensure that every person driving on our roads is fit to drive and can prove his or her identity," said the department's commissioner, David Stewart. "Rather than bury our heads in the sand and pretend the problem does not exist, today we are choosing to confront it and in doing so greatly improve the safety of our roads."

The Next Step

In doing this, New York will become the ninth state that does not require driver's license applicants to prove legal immigration status, joining Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The policy change in New York does not require legislative approval. Implementation will take place in two phases. In Phase 1, former and current license holders will be able to renew their license regardless of their immigration status by the end of the year. Phase 2 will begin six to eight months after Phase 1 and open the application process to all New York State residents.

While Spitzer has the authority to change the policy in New York, he faces a strong challenge from the federal government's REAL ID Act. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005, this establishes a national standard for issuing driver's licenses. That requires all applicants for state IDs and driver's license to provide documentation of legal immigration status in addition to proof of name, age and residence. If a state does not comply with those standards, its licenses will not serve as proper identification for entering a federal facility or boarding a federally regulated commercial plane. The standards must be met by May 10, 2013.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, usually a close ally of Spitzer's and a pro-immigration politician, voiced opposition to Spitzer's plan, saying, that if it went ahead, New York State's driver's license might not be acceptable proof of identification for air travel. "People would need other form of identification, generally a passport, and that would be a very big problem," said the mayor.

Spitzer later blasted Bloomberg, saying that the mayor is "wrong at every level-dead wrong, factually wrong, legally wrong, morally wrong, ethically wrong."

The Opposition

Meanwhile, Republican elected officials across the state voiced stronger criticisms than Bloomberg, calling Spitzer's move is politically motivated and charging that it could endanger national security.

"Governor Spitzer should not view New York state driver's license like baseball cards-handing them out just to score political points," State Senator Dale Volker of Erie County told the New York Post.

James Tedisco, the Republican State Assembly minority leader from Schenectady, said terrorists will welcome Spitzer's license plan. "I think Bin Laden is popping the cork off some champagne right now when he hears something like this," Tedisco said.

Peter Gadiel, the president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, who lost his son in the World Trade Center attack, echoed Tedisco's concern. "If the governor follows through with his plan, when there is another 9/11, it is likely those involved will have obtained New York drivers licenses," Gadiel said in a statement published on the group's Web site. "In that case, Spitzer will have on his hands the blood of the victims."

But the real challenge to Spitzer's announcement came from some of the state's county clerks. A number of clerks, particularly upstate Republicans, have said they will not issue licenses to undocumented immigrants—regardless of what Spitzer might say. This could lead to a legal battle.

"I'm not going to process a driver's license for someone who cannot prove they are here legally, Frank Merola, County Clerk of Rensselaer County told the New York Sun. "I know I am not going to do it. The governor is going to really have to take a second look at this."

Cheryl Dinolfo, the county clerk of Monroe County and a Republican, said, "I believe that the state DMV is asking my office to help illegal immigrants to break the law, and this policy is one that cannot stand."

But the Spitzer administration stands firm on the policy change. In 51 of the state's 62 counties, county clerks operate Department of Motor Vehicles offices as state agents. In New York City, Long Island and Westchester, the state operates the facilities.

"The county clerk must respond and adapt to DMV policy and not doing so would be a flagrant violation of state law," Christine Anderson, press secretary to the governor, has said. She told the New York Times that the county clerks would be subject to lawsuits by the state and license applicants if the offices turn away eligible applicants.

Despite the possible rebellion from the Republican county clerks, state officials said any refusal on their part would be unlikely to have a big impact since most of the undocumented population lives in New York City, Long Island and Westchester, where Department of Motor Vehicles offices are directly operated by the state. Meanwhile, upstate residents would be free to travel to those counties to apply for licenses.

For the Policy

Not everyone opposes the new license policy. Immigrant groups have hailed the announcement, applauding Spitzer for making a brave move in a political climate that is pushing for tightening identification standards and cracking down on identity fraud.

"New York State's new driver's license policy is a win-win for immigrants and for all New Yorkers and a giant step forward for public safety," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group for immigrant organizations. "Not only will the new policy enable more New Yorkers to get licensed and insured, making our roads much safer, but it will also make our licensing system far more secure and immune to fraud."

Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the Long Island-based Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy group, said the policy was simply practical. "There are so many people here who are supporting families who need driver's licenses in order to continue to do that," Marin-Molina told Newsday. "People need to drive, especially on Long Island and upstate New York where there isn't good public transportation."

But to Jola, the Polish nanny from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, all these political debates and the national security concern over the driver's license seem irrelevant.

"The terrorists have their own ways of getting picture IDs," she said. "There are so many agencies that would make you a fake ID for $20, so I am sure they won't need the real one. They can get the fake ones if they want to."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.



A City ID Card for All

M. Zywicka started working as a hostess in an Italian restaurant in Murray Hill just a month after she arrived in New York. A native of Krakow, Poland, Zywicka (who does not want her full name used) came to New York on a tourist visa in June. Like countless foreigners living in this expensive city, she struggles to support herself by working off the books. But she has to be careful with the cash she earns because she doesn’t have the identification needed to open a bank account.

“ I pay everything in cash,” said Zywicka. “Sometimes I use my Polish credit card but I don’t like it because the service charge is too expensive.” Not having an ID also prevents her from getting a regular cell phone. ”I have to use a pre-paid phone so I don’t get those free minutes at night and on the weekend,” she said.

In an effort to help people like Zywicka gain access to services that require an ID, City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate of Queens wants the city to issue IDs to anyone who wants one, including undocumented immigrants. He is sponsoring a bill, the Municipal Identification Card Program Act or Intro 602, to accomplish this.

“The City of New York is home to 8 million people, many of them immigrants and some of them frankly, undocumented,” said Monserrate. “Some of them have been residents of the city for many years, and to give them a basic ID card that’s valid within the city limits only makes sense.”

“ It is my hope that this card will be the city’s first step in using the benefits of technology to allow residents not only access to public safety resources, but more convenient and stream-lined services,” he added.

A Card for the Undocumented

The proposed local law would require the city's Human Rights Commission to create a New York City Municipal Identification Card, which would feature a resident's name, address and photo. Applicants would need to provide only proof of identity and residency within New York City. They would not have to disclose their immigration status. Currently the standard form of identification is a driver's license or a non-driver’s license identification card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. To get that kind of identification, an applicant must present a Social Security number or tax identification number and other government-issued documents.

Monserrate’s proposed ID card would allow holders to take out library books and would help emergency workers identify them in case of an emergency. Also, undocumented immigrants with the ID will be able to report crimes and take advantage of city services they are entitled to but need an ID to obtain.

The proposal is partly inspired by the City of New Haven, which became the first city to provide IDs to undocumented immigrants in July. Within about a month, it issued about 3,000 cards. The card, called the Elm City Resident Card, costs $10 for adults and $5 for children, and has a debit card feature that can be used in municipal parking lots and participating stores.

According to the New Haven Independent, an online news publication, several municipalities from around the country are looking at similar proposals, including Miami-Dade County and cities in California, Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, Wisconsin and Arizona.

Removing Barriers…

Monserrate, a former police officer, said the proposal shares the spirit of the city's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prohibits city employees from asking residents for confidential information, including immigration status, and reporting it to a local, state or federal government agency.

“For many New Yorkers, the lack of government-issued photo identification is a substantial barrier to employment and other necessities,” said John Liu, one of 21 City Council members who have signed on to sponsor the bill. “Not only will a city ID card enhance individual opportunities, but it will also help ensure equal access to municipal services.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who believes that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay if they pay back taxes and fines and follow the rules to apply for legal status, did not issue any official statement on the matter. He was quoted by the Queens Chronicle as saying that the city needs to give permanent status to the millions of illegal immigrants already living here and move on.

Meanwhile, the proposal also received support from some elected officials at the state level.

State Senator Ruben Diaz said the bill will “close the loophole that has done nothing but drive many New Yorkers underground out of fear of our city health and safety officials.”

Jose Peralta, a member of the State Assembly from Queens, told the Daily News that the card would improve the city’s security. “An ID card should dispel the concerns of all those who fear an underground society of undocumented immigrants that no one can identify,” Peralta said. “Now we will know who is who. In terms of security, it is a very positive step.”

… Or a Threat to Security?

But the New York bill has also attracted some opposition. City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. of Queens said the proposed ID violates federal law and sends the wrong message about the country’s immigrant policy. “This card is a clear attempt to circumvent our immigration laws,” Vallone said. “Just being in our country does not entitle you to being a citizen.”

“ It’s not the place of New York City to undermine the federal government’s albeit pathetic attempts to secure our borders,” Vallone continued. “With the threat of terrorism still over our heads, we certainly should not be doing anything to make it easier to come here illegally, board planes and otherwise blend into our society unnoticed.”

Zywicka, the Polish restaurant hostess, also has doubts about the bill. She said she would be hesitant to take up the city's offer of an identification card, even if the bill is passed.

" I am afraid to leave my information with any 'official' authority," she said, adding that she doesn't want the government to be able to track her down. "I would like to keep a distance. It is not necessary for me to get this ID. I have my Polish IDs in my wallet and should be able to be identified if any accident happens."

The bill was introduced on July 25 and is currently under review by the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operation.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  


The Legislature Acts, Doesn't Act and Reacts

Members of the New York State Senate and Assembly always go on a wild ride in the last few weeks of the session, passing bills by the bucketful, and ignoring others in the rush to adjourn. This year was no different, and when the dust settled – and the legislators had gone home – 2007 turned out to be at best a mixed year for advocates of greater civil rights and liberties.

Consider three bills before the legislature: one on gay marriage, one on the rights of accused rapists (and, not incidentally, the health of rape survivors) and one on transgender rights.

Same-Sex Marriage

In June, the State Assembly became only the third legislative body in the nation to pass a bill opening marriage to same-sex couples. (The other two such votes came in California where they were met by a veto from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) The New York measure was a program bill submitted by Governor Eliot Spitzer, the first governor in U.S. history to propose such legislation. And it was guided to victory by openly gay Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell of the Upper West Side, who made personal appeals to scared and wavering colleagues. His efforts yielded a positive vote from Speaker Sheldon Silver, an Orthodox Jew who began public life opposed to gay rights, and an 85-61 victory, not overwhelming in a house with a 60-seat Democratic margin but beyond the expectations of most observers.

Earlier in the session, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno made it clear that his house would not take up the same-sex marriage bill. “This governor has his priorities wrong,” Bruno said in April.

Spitzer conceded he did not think the bill had “a realistic shot” at being passed but said he was introducing the measure “because it's a statement of principle that I believe in and I want to begin that dynamic.”

The marriage equality bill enjoys broad progressive support, including backing from many unions and religious groups, mostly organized by the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s leading lobby group on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.

Despite the breakthrough in the Assembly, opening marriage to gay and lesbian couples remains a heavy lift in New York. Beyond the predictable opposition from conservative Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders and the Conservative Party, it does not enjoy the support of Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. They favor only civil unions, which they say will deliver all the rights of marriage while reserving that institution for heterosexual couples.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perversely, came out for same-sex marriage in 2005 on the day he announced his appeal of the only court decision in New York mandating it. His action deprived advocates of same-sex marriage of the opportunity to go to the Court of Appeals in 2006 with thousands of gay couples from the city who would have been legally married. In July 2006, the state’s highest court ultimately ruled 4-2 against a constitutional right of gay couples to marry.

Earlier this year, the Conservative Party tried to use the issue in a special election for a State Senate seat on Long Island, distributing fliers saying that electing the Republican candidate was the only hope for stopping gay marriage. But Democrat Craig Johnson, a supporter of same-sex marriage, won, reducing the Republican majority to two.

Most political observers believe that the Democrats are poised to regain a majority in a Senate that has been in Republican hands for most of the last 75 years. But unless there is a Democratic landslide in 2008, any new Democratic majority will be slim and not necessarily inclined to pass a controversial bill on same-sex marriage right away.

Transgender Rights

When the legislature finally passed a bill adding “sexual orientation” to the human rights law in 2002, it became the 13th state to do so. (The first was Wisconsin in 1981.)

New York balked, however, at including transgender rights in the human rights law 2002, and the Empire State Pride Agenda did not insist on it at the time. Today, discrimination on basis of “gender identity and expression” is illegal in 13 states -- including New Jersey, which acted this year -- and the District of Columbia. New York, though, still has no state law on the issue.

To remedy that, advocates have proposed a stand-alone bill called the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, GENDA for short. Transgender activists such as Donna Cartwright argue that the push for this measure has not been nearly as intense as the advocacy work for the marriage bill. It did not even get a vote in the Assembly, let alone the Senate. “GENDA needs extra emphasis to have a real chance of passage. And [the Pride Agenda]… has a real responsibility to give it that boost,” she wrote.

Alan Van Capelle, the Pride Agenda’s executive director, said that the group pushed hard on transgender rights this year and managed to get 95 sponsors in the Assembly, more than enough votes for passage – and 10 more than the number of members who voted for the marriage act. “One piece missing is that GENDA doesn’t have a Danny O’Donnell [chief sponsor of the marriage bill] who is going to work it every day,” he said.

Van Capelle also said that the marriage issue benefited from being in the papers and the public consciousness. “Legislators aren’t as educated about transgender issues,” he said.

HIV Tests for Rape Suspects

When Eliot Spitzer successfully ran for attorney general in 1998, his ad campaign featured a rape survivor complaining that a rape suspect cannot be force-tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, “until after he’s convicted, maybe years later, which may be too late.” Spitzer proposed a law that would give rape victims the right to get rape suspects tested and the results supplied to them.

At the time, Spitzer’s proposal was condemned as “demagogic” by AIDS activists and his opponents in the race and lambasted by everyone from the state health department to the National Organization for Women. They said this issue presented a dangerous distraction from what rape survivors need to do vis-Ă -vis HIV -- commence a regimen of drugs within two to 36 hours of exposure that can prevent HIV from taking hold in their systems. Even if an immediate HIV result from a suspect was negative, the survivor of the attack needs to take the drugs in case the alleged perpetrator’s HIV infection is so recent that it does not show up in a test.

Results from a suspected or convicted rapist are “irrelevant,” AIDS specialist Dr. Howard Grossman said then. “If I were a rape victim, I’d be taking post-exposure prophylaxis no matter what the status of the perpetrator,” he told me at the time.

The New York State health department established a protocol for survivors of rape in 1998 that urged them to take the drugs necessary to prevent HIV infection immediately -- or at least within 36 hours.

During his eight years as attorney general, Spitzer did not publicly press for the HIV testing. Once he got elected governor, however, he resumed his quest for it, and it passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses of the legislature.

O’Donnell, one of 21 members of the Assembly to oppose Spitzer on the bill, said passage was “emotionally understandable, but the science was not out there.” State Sen. Tom Duane, the only legislator who is open about being HIV-positive, also came out against the measure. “This bill does nothing to protect victims and may do harm,” he said in an interview.

Andrea Mitchell, a rape survivor who works for Housing Works, an AIDS agency that worked to defeat the bill, wrote in the Albany Times Union that it fails to provide post-exposure drugs to survivors of rape and “focuses obsessively on the HIV status of the perpetrators of rape at the expense of their actual victims.” The bill as amended would only apply to suspects who have been indicted, something that almost never happens within 36 hours.

The measure was opposed by the New York Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Planned Parenthood, New York Civil Liberties Union and the YWCA.

Spitzer argues the testing would help survivors of sex crimes. His spokesperson told the New York Times, “The governor believes that a victim of rape or sexual assault needs to know as soon as possible the HIV status of their attacker. This information is critical to the physical and emotional well-being of the victim.”

Assemblymember Nettie Mayersohn championed Spitzer’s bill in the Assembly, chastising critics like Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “Their whole program is to protect the infected person, not the victim,” she told the New York Post.

Gay Men’s Health Crisis lobbied against the bill, but did not organize the kind of public outcry from the public health establishment that might have defeated the proposal. Indeed, despite the fact that the group’s executive director, Marjorie Hill, is a former assistant commissioner for HIV/AIDS Services at the New York City health department, she was either unable or unwilling to get the city department to speak out against it. A spokesperson for the department refused to make an on-the-record comment about whether or not the bill was good or bad for public health.

Many legislators feared that by voting against the bill, they could leave themselves open to attacks that they were soft on rapists. Indeed, just after the session ended, the State Senate Republican Campaign Committee set up a web site called New Yorkers in Jeopardy, targeting Democrats who voted against this bill accusing them of “not protecting us” and “not recognizing that a rape victim has a right to know if their rapist has HIV.”

Assemblymember Crystal Peoples of Buffalo acknowledged being “confused” during the floor debate, but she voted for the bill anyway. Assemblymember Patricia Eddington of Patchogue, a clinical social worker, at first condemned it as “feel good legislation,” but after two amendments were added voted for it. Assemblymember Charles Levine of Glen Cove said, “I don’t know whether this is a just bill,” but he voted for it anyway saying that “part of the healing process means that someone’s got to feel safe.”

Some members resisted. Deborah Glick of Greenwich Village said that the only way to determine if a rape survivor has been infected “rests with the victim and that information is not provided by testing someone else.” Ellen Jaffee, a member of the Assembly from Pearl River, said the bill provided “false hope” and is “neither grounded in science nor appropriate public health policy.”

Mixed Message

Some opponents of the bill worry about what it says about the governor. While Michael Kink of Housing Works praises the governor’s competence, he said Spitzer’s “willingness to choose the soundbite is a serious flaw.” Kink said administration officials leaned on the state health department to provide a letter of support for the bill.

Other observers do not discern an obvious pattern on the part of the governor or legislature. Assemblymember Dick Gottfried of Chelsea said, “I don’t know if there is a pattern or theme to the actions of the legislature in these three bills….Each of these issues has its own pluses and minuses and merits and politics.” Gottfried voted for the marriage bill, against the AIDS bill and could not get his transgender rights bill to the floor.

Van Capelle of the Pride Agenda agreed. “I don’t think the legislature acts in thematic ways. You can see them doing things that seem to contradict each other.”

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

Immersed in English

Martha Escobar, a speech pathologist in her native Colombia, wanted to pursue a similar career after she moved to New York City three years ago. But her limited English proved a barrier. Then she learned about a language immersion program at Borough of Manhattan Community College. After pursuing those classes, along with coursework in speech pathology at Lehman College, she has started working in her field, interning in a program for autistic children in the Bronx.

Her English has improved as well, she said. "My boyfriend is French, and now I correct him when we speak in English,” she said.

Students like Escobar are hardly unusual at City University of New York these days. Campus-wide applications to the City University of New York are up 16 percent from last year. Approximately one-third of the applicants are immigrants for whom English is not their first language and many more are first-generation children of immigrants. Attending college can make an enormous difference in their lives: According to the recent book Passing the Torch by CUNY sociologists Paul Attewell and Steve Lavin, U.S. immigrants who receive at least some post-secondary education significantly increase their children’s chances of getting a college education and, in turn, raising their children’s social, intellectual and economic level. At the same time, CUNY has introduced policies designed to raise it educational standards.

All of this has increased pressure on City University and other New York institutions to create more facilities and programs for English language. “Learning a new language well enough to perform well in college is an enormous task and requires work on many different skills,” says Ellen Balleisen, a CUNY language instructor for over 20 years. These skills take time and active assistance to learn.


CUNY’s traditional programs for speakers of other languages serve many students, particularly those who already have a strong base in English. These classes provide a valuable bridge to regular college courses by giving the students a semester or two of language learning in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

But for some students these more conventional programs do not offer enough. To address that, 12 years ago, Leslee Oppenheim, director of literacy programs at CUNY, started the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) for students with extensive language needs. It is designed to be an academic program for committed immigrant students with little background in English. Students spend 25 hours a week in class, focusing on a theme, Utopia, say, or an aspect of America, rather than on language instruction per se. This borrows from a concept used in many entry-level composition and humanities college courses nationwide.

Oppenheim says the approach offers a number of benefits. “There’s the intensive nature of the program – 25 hours a week is the foremost qualifier,” she said. “The theme-based content provides a language learning experience based more on a college course model. I think we provide a rehearsal for the content they’ll find their freshman year.”

CLIP is now a department at all CUNY community colleges and at three four-year schools: City College of Technology, York College and College of Staten Island. The immersion program provides a number of benefits not offered by more traditional English as a second language courses.


While standard English programs for speakers of other languages offer 12 to 18 hours of course work a week, the standard academic week for CLIP is 25 contact hours per week, with the same professor. This gives students a substantial amount of in-class time with one instructor who can focus on an integrated language program.” That’s pivotal for people who have the time to devote to the workload,” says Oliver Mann, an instructor both at CLIP and in standard English language courses. “CLIP really helps them manage their time, because in college classes freshmen, probably immigrant and non-immigrant, have to spend a lot more time on reading and homework.”


While traditional English classes often focus on isolated lessons in grammar and English, in the CLIP program each semester’s course is thematic, with professors developing introductory-level courses in their area of expertise. All reading, writing, speaking and grammar instruction is focused around the texts students read related to that theme. “We make content the umbrella under which the language learning fits,” said Oppenheim, although she added, “We are not pretending to teach, say, history or science per se, but using it as a broad-based concept to teach English.”

Sirina Gouni, a CLIP student, praised this approach. She said she found her theme -- American Folk -- fascinating, and the program, she said, made her “feel very confident as a college student.” The more intensive nature of CLIP, said Yennifer Santana, provided her with the opportunity to do more demanding work, such as researching papers, writing numerous essays and reading books.


Standard English language programs cost as much as regular classes, roughly $2,000 full-time per semester at the four-year campuses and $1,400 per semester at the community colleges. The classes do not count toward graduation though, which means, for the most part, students learning English spend one or two semesters of their financial aid before taking a course toward graduation. Funds for CLIP, on the other hand, come largely from the government, so students pay only $180 per semester for 25 hours a week of class time. “Less than 10 percent comes from student fees,” said Gil Gerena, CLIP director for New York City College of Technology.


After 12 years, CLIP is now serving over 3,000 conditionally admitted CUNY students and seems to have finally shed the “experimental” label.

But it still faces challenges. One of the greatest drawbacks for some CLIP students is their detachment from many of the “regular” students. Some do not even attend classes on their school’s main campus. Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Language Immersion Program, for example, has been located a 140 blocks from the downtown campus on 125th Street in an effort to keep a presence for the college uptown.

Another major problem CLIP faces is one it shares with other English-language programs at CUNY. “I think the biggest challenge is the very low salaries for teachers,” says Balleisen, who is CLIP’s primary advocate at the Professional Staff Conference, the CUNY faculty union. The CLIP instructors, she explains, are considered part- time even though they spend more than twice as much time in the classroom as full-time CUNY faculty.

When CLIP started, its teachers received a higher salary than a starting New York City public school teacher with a master’s degree. Today, according to Balleisen, “this situation has reversed quite dramatically.”

In general, CUNY has a wonderful problem on its hands – a surplus of qualified, motivated immigrant students who need a small additional initial investment before they can reap continuing long-term benefits for the New York City community. More intensive language learning programs like CLIP can help fill the gap, if the City University agrees takes the steps to strengthen it.

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen. 

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