It Took Almost 20 Years for Transgender New Yorkers to Get Legal Protections. Here's a Timeline of How They Did It.
This week's dispiriting news that some Trump administration restrictions on transgender people serving in the military can go forward reinforces the need for strong protections for transgender people on the state level.
Stigma and discrimination put trans people at increased risk of contracting HIV. Although HIV in the trans community remains understudied, research strongly suggests that the virus disproportionately affects trans people. In 2015, their rate of new diagnoses was three times the national average.
Last week, New York State took a belated but no less welcome step to address that stigma and discrimination. The state legislature finally passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA). GENDA prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression and includes offenses regarding gender identity or expression under the New York hate crimes statute.
Transgender New Yorkers have had some degree of protection from discrimination before now. In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued regulations establishing that the state's existing Human Rights Law barred discrimination against transgender people. However, last week's passage of GENDA ensures that those protections are enshrined in state law, and, for the first time, adds gender identity and expression to New York's hate crimes law.
What's taken so long for New York to extend basic anti-discrimination protections to its transgender residents? Here's a look back at the major milestones in this two-decades-long civil rights battle.
1998: The friction between the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), New York State's leading gay rights organization of the time, and trans activists erupts into a full breach when it becomes clear that ESPA won't push for trans rights. "We were gobsmacked. We realized we would have to work around them," says veteran trans activist Melissa Sklarz, who is also the first trans person to hold elected office in New York (as a 1999 judicial delegate from the 66th Assembly District).
January 2002: The Democrat-controlled New York State Assembly takes up the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- but not gender identity or expression. ESPA endorses Republican governor George Pataki, after he indicates his support for SONDA. Transgender rights activists, hoping to take advantage of the legislation's momentum, swing into action to persuade legislators to amend SONDA to protect trans people, too. "We worked like crazy," says Sklarz. Their efforts pay off. The Assembly carries the amendment.
December 2002: Openly gay, openly HIV-positive State Senator Tom Duane delivers a tear-inducing speech in the State Senate in favor of the amendment to include transgender people in SONDA. Nonetheless, the Republican-led Senate rejects the amendment and passes the bill without transgender protections. Immediately after the defeat, dozens of activists who had "worked like crazy" gather beneath a stairwell in the State Capitol to lick their wounds. Sklarz remembers feeling "extremely defeated" but that one person, Charles King, "was ebullient." King, CEO of the influential New York City–based HIV/AIDS nonprofit Housing Works, proposes they get right back to work on a new transgender-focused anti-discrimination bill. They agree to call it the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. "We marched out chanting, 'Pass GENDA! Pass GENDA!'" King recalls.
2003: Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, who represents, among other districts, the Manhattan gay enclave of Chelsea, introduces a new transgender rights bill called GENDA into the State Assembly, and Duane introduces it in the State Senate. The same year, Housing Works launches an annual Transgender Lobby Day to push state lawmakers to get on board with the legislation and presses the issue in weekly lobbying visits to Albany. Trans activists become a familiar sight in the State Capitol.
August 2004: Former ESPA Executive Director Matt Foreman publicly apologizes for leaving transgender New Yorkers behind in the battle for gay rights. "All I can say is that hindsight is 20/20. I made mistakes in New York," he writes.
June 2008: The New York State Assembly passes GENDA for the first time, but the law still has yet to pass out of committee in the State Senate. Kiara St. James, executive director and cofounder of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG), says that even when lobbying for GENDA failed, it paid off. She says, "It gave so many trans folks and folks of color a better understanding of their voice. We would leave at 6 a.m. from New York City to make our 10 a.m. Albany visits. Initially people were scared and hesitant. By end of day, they said, 'When can we come back up?'"
February 2009: Duane introduces GENDA into the 2009-2010 session of the State Senate, and in May 2010, the bill advances to the Senate's Judiciary Committee. For the first time in years, Democrats have tenuous control of the chamber. "The clouds opened up for a brief bit," says Sklarz. Disarray among the Democrats shepherding the bill through the committee cripples its chances. "It was devastating," says Sklarz. "It was really our only opportunity ever to get the bill to the floor in the Senate."
March 2013: Award-winning actor and transgender activist Laverne Cox joins Housing Works for its annual Transgender Lobby Day and writes an essay about the experience. Sklarz sees a glimmer of hope that the State Senate will consider GENDA because it's not an election year. GENDA passes for the sixth time in the Assembly but once again does not come to the floor of the State Senate. "I'm pathetically optimistic. It's a severe character flaw," Sklarz says.
October 2015: Governor Cuomo declares that the state's existing Human Rights Law will be interpreted to include a ban on discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The governor's action means that transgender people in New York State are, at last, protected from discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and other areas. Transgender people remain excluded from the state's hate crimes legislation. "We were thrilled," says St. James, who was adamant about continuing to fight. "We needed more than an executive order from the governor. We needed codified law. No community should settle," she recalls.
2014 to 2016: Sklarz becomes board co-chair of ESPA, which over the years has become active in the push for GENDA. With priorities like marriage equality achieved, however, in 2016, ESPA closes its doors. "ESPA worked mightily to educate their donor base on the importance of trans civil rights. While many were supportive, there were not enough to sustain a statewide organization," says Sklarz.
June to September 2018: In reaction to the election of Donald Trump, a progressive tide rises in New York, exemplified by the June Democratic primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In September, six members of the Independent Democratic Conference -- state senators elected as Democrats who regularly serve Republican interests -- go down defeated in primaries. A Democrat-controlled -- and likely pro-GENDA -- State Senate is in view for the first time in nearly a decade.
November 2018: Statewide elections definitively deliver the State Senate to Democrats, who now hold 40 seats to Republicans' 23.
January 2019: In the first week of the 2019 legislative session, GENDA passes out of both the New York State Assembly and Senate, along with a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors. King says he is "walking on air." According to Sklarz, "Once Democratic senators took over, they got it immediately, or they listened, and they got it." Nonetheless, Sklarz cautions, "It's taken 20 years to pass the law, but that may have been the easy part -- the hard part is changing the culture." St. James agrees that the fight goes on. "It's like, wow! We finally did it. But GENDA is not perfect. We still want to make sure that the language in regard to hate crimes is addressed and not weaponized against people of color."
David Thorpe has been a New York-based editor and freelance writer for more than two decades. He writes primarily about gay life, AIDS, and pop culture. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times_,_ OUT_,_ Time Out New York_,_ New York_,_ POZ_, and_ O, the Oprah Magazine_._