Time for NY leaders to support equal rights for transgender

June is LGBT Pride Month, a time when community members, family, friends and advocates of the transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual communities come to acknowledge and celebrate the gift of diversity that is unique to each of us. Many communities host “Pride Parades” where community members outwardly profess their TLGB affiliation. This is a time to acknowledge the many accomplishments of TLGB members as well as the strides in our current social/political arenas.

We can look back on the SONDA legislation of the past decade which included sexual orientation as a part of New York state’s current human rights laws. The end of the federal Defense of Marriage Act made way for the Marriage Equality Act, allowing all persons, regardless of their attractions, to enter into a marriage contract with the person “they” love rather than a person whom society dictates they “should.” We have just recently seen the federal government put an end to the transgender exclusion clause in Medicare coverage to help enable transgender people to live the lives they were meant to live as the persons they know themselves to be. In 2010, the Dignity for All Students Act passed, allowing specific protections from discrimination and bullying on the basis of gender identity and expression in the state’s public schools. The mayor of the city of Rochester, New York, Lovely Warren, announced just last month (May 2014) transgender city employees will now be eligible for transition-related medical coverage. Earlier this month, Gov. Cuomo announced an update to the state’s policy around changing gender markers on birth certificates, removing the surgical requirement and making it easier and safer for transgender New Yorkers to match official documentation with their gender identity.

Time Magazine, in its June 9 issue, featured transgender personality and advocate Lavern Cox, who stars as a transgender woman on the Netflix series “Orange is the new Black.” The featured article was wonderfully written, giving all due sensitivity to accurately explain what it means to be transgender, as well as the struggles members of this community face on a daily basis in terms of employment, housing, public accommodations, finances, basic human rights and legal protections.

In spite of all the past accomplishments, there is still much work that needs to be done. Following the announcement from Mayor Warren, two Rochester area radio personalities took to the airwaves to spout their most vile disrespect and misunderstanding of the Rochester transgender community. Within hours, local, regional and state LGBT organization denounced the broadcast, which ultimately lead to the dismissal of these radio personalities. As a part of the radio station’s community response, members of the local Rochester transgender group were able to set their story straight as to what it means to be transgender in today’s society. Yet the hatred, discrimination and harassment of transgender and LGB community members in our local communities continue to exist.

On our local level, there are still no TLGB resources for our young people. Access to medical and mental health care regionally is still lacking. The long-held practice of “don’t ask, don’t tell” may work for some, but for the transgender community, our physical transformations are hard to hide or deny.

In Gov. Cuomo’s 2014 State of the State address, he stated, “New York also means justice for all.” The governor expounded on New York’s commitment to diversity acceptance. In his summation, the governor stated, “What makes New York so special are the people. And it’s how we treat each other, and it’s what we have here. It’s how we feel and it’s what we believe. And while other states say we’re afraid of diversity we say we’re excited by the diversity. We welcome the diversity.”

If we are to accept and celebrate diversity in all its many forms and ideals, when will the transgender community be included in these very basic of human rights?

The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) seeks to extend the protections that every other New Yorker enjoys, including freedom from discrimination in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations, to transgender and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers. The New York State Assembly has passed the bill seven years in a row, but GENDA has never been taken up on the Senate floor. It is time for the governor and our own New York state senator, Betty Little, to demand of the Legislature that this important issue finally be acted upon. The governor and Sen. Little’s absence of leadership in this discussion is a barrier to the passage of this basic civil rights law.

Non-discrimination laws protecting transgender people are on the books in 18 other states. In recent polling, nearly 80 percent of New Yorkers believe in equal rights for transgender people, approval that reaches statewide. It is clear: New Yorkers believe in equal rights for all citizens. So why the silence and delay from the most powerful New Yorker of them all? When will the governor live up to his very own words?

We in New York who use the symbol of “Lady Liberty,” standing proud and unwavering in New York Harbor, should be in the forefront on life, liberty, freedom and equal justice for all people in this state. If our Senate leadership is not willing to extend these basic of all human rights and protections, perhaps “we the people” should reject those politicians currently in office and elect a new government dedicated to these very basic values and protections for ALL our people.

Our great nation was founded on the principles of life, liberty, freedom and justice for all, yet even today we fail to live up to these lofty principles we so proudly profess. We deny many basic rights and protections to our very own citizens. The LGB community and especially now the transgender community are not looking for “more” or “special” rights; we are only looking for EQUAL rights already extended to other members of our society.

Kelly Metzgar lives in Saranac Lake and is a member of the New York State Transgender Rights Coalition (www.nytransequality.org).