Nearly three years after the City Council passed and Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation banning discrimination based on gender identity or expression, the city’s Commission on Human Rights has published guidelines intended to aid employers and businesses in implementing the law’s requirements.
“I’m so excited that they have been released,” said Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. “I think that they are going to be incredibly helpful.”
The guidelines define the law’s terms and explain what actions might be viewed as discriminatory under the law and how employers and businesses can avoid discriminatory practices.
“I think they are a really positive step forward,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “They will go a long way in educating employers, landlords and business owners about discrimination based on gender identity and how to avoid discrimination against transgender people.”
The guidelines were seen as important because there are relatively few U.S. laws that ban such discrimination. The guidelines are meant to assist employers and businesses on complying with the law. The New York City law bans discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing based on gender identity or expression. Similar prohibitions on sexual orientation discrimination were enacted in 1986.
Spade, Foreman and a number of other gay and transgendered advocates served in a working group that assisted the commission in writing the guidelines.
Patricia L. Gatling, who chairs the commission, praised the guidelines in a press statement.
“We are pleased to issue these guidelines concerning the gender-based discrimination amendment to the city’s Human Rights Law,” Gatling said in the statement. “Our collaboration with community representatives produced guidelines that will educate New Yorkers about the city’s Human Rights Law and ensure protection against discrimination based on gender-identity.”
Advocates can point to the guidelines when they train employers or when handling a complaint from a client who feels he or she has experienced discrimination.
“It’s one thing for me to say it as an advocate,” Spade said. “It’s another for the city to really spell it out... I can see myself, as a lawyer working for transgender people, I can see being able to use these. The law is very clear now.”
The guidelines deal with some specific circumstances, such as handling “sex-segregated facilities,” like bathrooms and locker rooms, that can lead to complaints from transgendered people.
“In the context of bathrooms and sex segregated facilities, that is where you see a lot of anxiety around transgendered people,” Spade said. “I am really glad that the guidelines make it clear that transgendered people have a right use sex-segregated facilities safely and that there is no reason that that should be of concern to anyone else.”
While the law is generally seen as protecting transgender people, it could also be useful to butch women and nelly men.
“I have had clients who have been kicked out of a dressing room in a department store because they were trying on clothes of the opposite gender,” Spade said. “To me, there are lots of people who are not gender conforming. I think that they will also be protected by this.”
While they are praising the commission now, the advocates have, in the recent past, charged the commission was not adequately enforcing the 2002 law, was dragging its feet on issuing the guidelines and that transgender people who went to the commission to file complaints were sometimes subject to harassment.
The commission aggressively countered those charges by pointing to the cases that it has prosecuted since the law was enacted and to its outreach to the transgender community.
“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,” Avery S. Mehlman, the deputy commissioner for law enforcement, told Gay City News earlier this year. “I take tremendous umbrage to these kinds of allegations.”
Other members of the working group included Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Carrie Davis, coordinator of the Gender Identity Project at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, Pauline Park and Moonhawk River Stone, co-chairs of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, and Melissa Sklarz, a director of the New York Trans Rights Organization and the new president of Manhattan’s Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.