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Activists argue that New York drags feet on enforcing 2002 anti-bias measure

A hearing of the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission (EEPC) highlighted what activists charge are failures by the city’s human rights commission in implementing a 2002 law that bans discrimination against transgender New Yorkers.

Spade said he has referred more than 40 of the more than 250 clients of the project, which serves transgender people, to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which enforces local anti-discrimination laws. Staff there have shown a “disinterest in these complaints” and “a desire not to move forward on these complaints,” according to Spade.

Avery S. Mehlman, deputy commissioner for law enforcement at the human rights commission, testified that his agency was investigating eight complaints brought by transgender people. Mehlman’s testimony prompted Spade to ask “I have referred over 40 people to the commission. Why are there eight?”

Mehlman cited those eight cases as evidence that the human rights commission was enforcing the 2002 law that banned discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on gender identity or expression.

“The commission has been enforcing this law since its inception,” he told the EEPC, which oversees workplace policies and practices at all city agencies.

Activists also charged that the CHR is dragging its feet in issuing guidelines that employers and city agencies can use to determine if they are complying with the law. The 2002 law did not define what an employer or business must do to avoid a gender discrimination complaint in dealing with matters such as “sex segregated facilities” like bathrooms and locker rooms.

“We need guidelines that will instruct employers,” Spade said.

It was the CHR that decided to issue guidelines, something it has not done for any other anti-discrimination law.

Michael D. Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the guidelines would aid judges in deciding gender discrimination cases if a victim sues in court instead of filing a complaint at the CHR.

“There aren’t many of these laws out there,” Silverman said. “That makes the issuance of guidelines important.. Courts will look to the guidance of the implementing agency.”

A group of activists, including Spade, assisted the CHR in drafting the guidelines. That work was completed in May of last year and the activists have heard nothing since then, according to Spade.

Mehlman said the guidelines were only an “educational tool” and not needed to enforce the law.

“The assumption by some that because there are no guidelines the law is not being enforced is wrong,” he said.

The final guidelines will be out “sometime in the early fall,” according to Mehlman. The CHR has distributed 10,000 palm cards that feature the text of the 2002 law and instructions on where to file a complaint.

CHR staff might need the guidelines. Activists said that transgender people who have gone there to file complaints have been harassed about the bathrooms they use.

“There is a perception that the commission itself is not sensitive to transgender people,” said Silverman who is also a member of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy.

Mehlman said the human rights commission had received no complaints from transgender clients about its own staff.

“They’re allowed to use the bathroom they choose,” he said. “We have had no complaints in that regard.”

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and five councilmembers, including Bill Perkins, Christine Quinn, Margarita Lopez, and Philip Reed of Manhattan and Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn recently wrote to the CHR to complain about the guidelines delay as did Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

For Spade, aggressive enforcement of the law and a public education campaign to teach businesses and employers about it could not be more important.

“I have clients who are kicked out of school for being transgender, fired from jobs because they are transgender,” he said. “It’s happening in hospitals, it’s happening in health clinics.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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