New York lawmakers could finally vote on transgender non-discrimination bill

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Friday June 4, 2010

Even though New York lawmakers continue to grapple over the state's fiscal crisis, LGBT activists remain optimistic they finally have enough votes to secure passage of a bill that would ban discrimination based on a person's gender identity or expression.

The Village Voice reported on May 26 state Sen. William Stachowski [D-Lake View] had announced he would support the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. This endorsement would make Stachowski the 32nd senator to back the measure, which would ensure passage if lawmakers were to actually vote on it. Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, Jr. [D-Bronx,] and state Sens. Joseph Addabbo [D-Queens,] Shirley Huntley [D-Queens,] George Onorato [D-Queens] and Diane Savino [D-Staten Island] are among those who have said they would vote for GENDA, but dozens of Housing Works activists from Amsterdam, Syracuse and the five boroughs traveled to Albany on Tuesday, June 1, to lobby undecided legislators.

"I want to keep a steady presence," said Terri Smith-Caronia, the organization's vice president of New York advocacy and public policy.

Melissa Sklarz, director of the New York Transgender Rights Organization, and other activists met with Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson [D-Brooklyn] last month after state Sen. Tom Duane [D-Manhattan,] the bill's sponsor in the Senate, arranged it. Sklarz questioned whether there are actually enough votes in the Senate, but she remains cautiously optimistic.

"We got a chance to speak with Sen. Sampson and he listened," Sklarz told EDGE. "He's very cautious, and he listened. We discussed it with him. We told him we're interested in moving the bill forward."

The bill remains in committee, but it remains unlikely a vote would take place before June 11. The legislative session is scheduled to end on June 21, but the budget, which is more than two months late, will almost certainly continue to dominate the agenda in this election year.

"Our community doesn't accept that as an excuse," said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. "Transgender New Yorkers cannot wait and should not have to wait for these basic civil rights protections. This is literally a matter of life and death for some people and the Senate has a responsibility to act as 13 other states have."

California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington all include gender identity and expression in their anti-discrimination laws.
As EDGE previously reported, New York Gov. David Paterson signed an executive order last December that banned discrimination against trans public employees.

Delaware, Indiana and Pennsylvania are among the handful of other states that have adopted similar policies. Atlanta, Monroe County, Fla., Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit, New York City, Salt Lake City and Suffolk County, N.Y., are among the cities and municipalities that have adopted trans-inclusive anti-discrimination policies. Maryland lawmakers debated a similar proposal in May 2009. And Massachusetts legislators continue to debate the Transgender Civil Rights Bill on Beacon Hill.

Activists point out several recent cases highlight the need for trans-specific anti-discrimination protections. These include Zikerria Bellamy, a trans teenager who faced anti-gay epithets from the manager of an Orlando McDonald's after she tried to apply for a job last July. Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, the group that represented Bellamy, said GENDA and similar bills in other states would provide a "remedy to the discrimination" trans people continue to face.

"There are no solid leads on when it will come up for a vote; it could happen soon," he added in reference to the New York State bill. "That's why it's important for people to keep working, to keep educating people they know about why a transgender non-discrimination law is vitally important to New Yorkers."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.