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Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Trans Teen Claims "Completely Essential" Victory over City Child Services Dress Code

[NEW YORK, NY] - A 17-year-old transgendered woman won the right to dress in female clothing while a resident in foster care facilities run by the Administration for Children?s Services (ACS) after she sued the city agency for discrimination last year.

"It?s completely essential," said Mariah Lopez, the woman, referring to her female attire. "You cannot transition without full expression of yourself."

She has been diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID) and is currently on hormone replacement therapy. Lopez hopes to complete her transition to female by 2004. Dressing in the correct attire is very much a part of that process.

Lopez first entered the foster care system at nine after her grandmother, her primary care giver, passed away. She has been in and out of various group homes since then including two that serve gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered kids.

Most recently Lopez was a resident in the Brooklyn-based Atlantic Transitional Foster Facility, an ACS unit. Staff there limited her ability to wear clothes fully appropriate for her to times when she was about to leave the all-male facility. She was allowed to wear "scarves, nails, brassieres, and enhancers" in the facility at any time. Those exceptions ultimately undercut arguments in court that wearing female attire was disruptive. Lopez also charged that she was abused by staff.

"I was told that I was sick by a supervisor," she said. "There was a point where they would intentionally use wrong pronouns or call me by my wrong name. "

Lopez sued ACS in 2002 with the assistance of Dean Spade, a transgendered attorney and the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Legal Resource Program at the Urban Justice Center, and Debevoise and Plimpton, a law firm.

"What ACS was asking Mariah to do in terms of wearing male clothing was contravening what is best for her health and well being as a transgendered person," Spade said. "Forcing transgendered people to occupy a gender role that doesn?t comport with their internal identity is bad for their health."

In the suit, Lopez asserted that ACS was discriminating against her based on disability??a GID diagnosis can be construed as disabling??and on sex. She also charged that ACS was violating her First Amendment rights of expression under the U.S. Constitution.

ACS countered that it was unaware that Lopez had received the GID diagnosis, that it had "provided a limited accommodation" by allowing her to wear " scarves, nails, brassieres, and enhancers," and that the agency had previously placed Lopez in the two homes for queer youth where she could dress as she wished, but "she was ejected from these facilities because of her own misconduct."

Lopez has been involved in violent incidents and she has twice been in juvenile detention.

The judge in the case found the ACS arguments unpersuasive. On January 7, Louise Gruner Gans, a state Supreme Court judge, ruled that Lopez had been subject to discrimination based on disability.

"The court finds that [ACS has] refused to accommodate reasonably [Lopez?s] GID in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law," Gans wrote. " [Lopez] is therefore entitled to relief in the form of an exception from [ACS? ] dress policy to the extent that it bars her from wearing skirts and dresses at the Atlantic Transitional congregate foster care facility." Gans did not comment on the other claims raised by Lopez because the disability claim was sufficient to find in her favor.

"It?s not a class action, but it is a landmark decision," Spade said. "I think it has a huge impact... Basically what this decision is saying is you can?t discriminate based on transgender identity."

Lopez was recently placed in a home in the South Bronx, but she moved in with friends from the transgendered community after she was "jumped" while traveling to the facility. Interviewed at the offices of People of Color in Crisis, an AIDS services group in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where she works, Lopez said that she had often been placed in unsafe environments.

"ACS would constantly, constantly put me in these dangerous group homes where instead of focusing on myself I had to focus on staying safe," she said.

Spade asserted that Lopez?s experience in the foster care system was not unique.

"We see a lot of transgendered youth who get put in a place where they can?t survive," Spade said. "They get abused by staff or residents... There is a lack of safe placements, a severe lack, I would call it a crisis."

Reached for comment on January 15, an ACS spokesperson said the agency was still looking at the decision.

"Currently we are reviewing the decision and we are speaking with the city?s attorney to determine an appropriate plan in response to the judge?s decision, " said MacLean Guthrie.


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