The city’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is responding aggressively to charges that it is not adequately implementing a 2002 law that protects transgendered New Yorkers from discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and housing based on their gender identity or expression. “Our agency has done everything in its power to reach out to all communities who might be discriminated against and to present our agency as one that invites individuals to file complaints,” said Avery S. Mehlman, CHR’s deputy commissioner for law enforcement. “We’ve done a lot of work in reaching out to the transgender community. We’ve distributed 10,000 palm cards.”
At a May 20 hearing of the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission (EEPC), charged with overseeing workplace policies and practices at all city agencies, transgender advocates charged that the rights commission was not adequately enforcing the law and was itself hostile to transgender people.
“We find that when our clients go to the commission to complain they face a number of obstacles,” said Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, at the hearing. “The commission is a hostile environment for our clients.”
Spade, a transgender attorney, said he has referred over 40 clients of the project to the rights commission that enforces local anti-discrimination laws. The commission currently has eight cases brought by transgender New Yorkers and those represent all the cases brought under the 2002 law that the commission has received, according to Mehlman.
“Forty people have not come down here and have been turned away,” Mehlman said.
In a June 1 letter to Spade, Mehlman wrote, “I have taken the time to review the agency’s appointment, intake, and phone logs and have found that complaints were filed on behalf of all individuals stating claims under the recent ‘gender’ amendment to the New York City Human Rights Law.”
Mehlman also sent copies of the June 1 letter to four CHR or EEPC commission officials and to Gay City News. In a June 14 interview, he expressed his anger with the charges.
“The idea that we don’t fight for the transgender community or we are a hostile place holds no water because the evidence clearly shows the opposite,” Mehlman said. “I take tremendous umbrage to these kinds of allegations.”
Responding to Mehlman in a June 7 letter that was also shared with Gay City News, Spade wrote: “Word has spread within transgender communities that, consistently, the CHR is not respectful and an unsafe place to take a complaint. Clients have repeatedly told me that they have had negative initial phone contacts with the CHR when attempting to schedule an appointment for a complaint.”
For instance, advocates have charged that transgender people who visit the rights commission to file a complaint have been harassed over which bathroom they use at that very site. Mehlman told Gay City News that the rights commission office had male, female, and gender-neutral bathrooms and that clients choose which facility to use. He said that the CHR had not received any complaints from transgender clients about its bathrooms or the conduct of its staff.
“The fact that no one has done that leads to questions as to whether it ever happened,” Mehlman said. “This idea that people don’t come down here because we are not sensitive to their need—there is no factual basis for that.”
In his June 7 letter, Spade cited the case of a woman who had been harassed over her bathroom use while at a college admissions test-taking facility. The CHR had initially refused to handle her complaint. Mehlman said that the woman was first turned away because she could not identify who had harassed her. He met with her and the case is now under investigation.
“I tried to work with the individual to try and ascertain who the alleged discriminator was,” Mehlman said. “What is out of the ordinary is for me to meet with a complainant and for Dean Spade to say that we’re not sensitive. I take that very personally.”
Mehlman said his agency discusses the 2002 law at all of its trainings with city agencies and private employers. Recently, these have included the city’s Board of Elections, a “large, large real estate conglomerate,” and a meeting to which the general counsels and top human resource officials of all city agencies had been invited, Mehlman said.
Spade said the CHR’s response to criticism was indicative of its overall approach to the transgender community.
“What I would like to see is a commission that can hear these kinds of complaints and say ‘Wow, what can we do to be responsive to a community that is claiming to have difficulty using our services’ rather than trying to deny what is overwhelmingly being said by people facing gender identity discrimination,” he said.
Spade said city agencies were turning to his group for help. Since the May 20 hearing, the Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection departments have contacted his agency and requested training assistance or informational materials on the 2002 law. He has been invited to attend a meeting of all the city’s equal employment opportunity officers.
“It’s not ideal for a non-profit to have to fill in for the CHR, but it is a positive sign that the EEO officers are eager to get the kinds of training tools necessary to make this law meaningful,” Spade said.
The Mehlman letter might also provide some signs of improvement, according to Spade.
“I was glad to get the letter because I hope it means they took the [May 20] hearing seriously,” he said. “I want some responsiveness to what has been an ongoing complaint from the community.”