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NY Gender Rights Bill Emerges

Democratic leaders, transgender activists finalize details of proposal

[NEW YORK] - Activists and elected officials have finalized language for the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a state bill that would ban discrimination based on gender identity or expression, and they expect the bill will be introduced in the Assembly and State Senate in April.

"It's going to be introduced simultaneously in the Senate and the Assembly on April 14," said Drew D. Kramer, chief of staff for out gay state Senator Thomas K. Duane. "We are going to have as many transgendered advocates and activists as we can get up to Albany on that day for that historic moment."

The bill will amend the state human rights law to ban discrimination based on gender identity or expression in employment, housing and public accommodations. GENDA broadly defines gender identity or expression to create protections for as large a group of New Yorkers as possible. "We wanted to make sure that we protected pre-op, post-op, and non- op transgendered folks, but traditionally effeminate men and butch women face discrimination as well," Kramer said.

Duane is the bill's prime sponsor in the state Senate. Kramer could not say if he had recruited any co-sponsors in the 61-seat body, but last year when the Senate passed the Sexual Orientation Non- Discrimination Act, a bill that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, Duane offered an amendment that would have added language to SONDA that was similar to the GENDA bill. Nineteen Democrats supported the Duane amendment and it is likely that some of those senators will back GENDA. The State Senate, however, is controlled by Republicans.

"It's not a brand new issue for the legislature," Kramer said. "If they can swallow SONDA, why wouldn't they be able to do the right thing for transgendered folks."

In the Assembly, Richard N. Gottfried (D-Upper West Side) is the prime sponsor and the bill is also supported by Deborah Glick, Steve Sanders, and Daniel O'Donnell, all three of whom are Manhattan Democrats. The Assembly is led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, also a Manhattan Democrat.

"For Dick Gottfried this kind of stuff is a no brainer," said Wendi Paster, a Gottfried spokesperson. "He is a civil rights advocate... He strongly believes that people in the transgender community should be protected by law."

Choosing Gottfried, a heterosexual, as the prime sponsor was a deliberate strategy to avoid having GENDA perceived as serving only a small group.

"What you want to say is that this is an issue that affects a lot of people in a lot of different places," Glick said. "For years in Albany we have struggled against the perception, however erroneous, that issues that affect the LGBT community are of importance in only a selected few communities in the state."

The language was hammered out at March 28 meeting at Housing Works, an AIDS service organization, attended by activists, elected officials or their representatives, and a team of lawyers.

"What we did is we ironed out language that the legislators are comfortable with, the attorneys are comfortable with, and the community is comfortable with," said Melissa Sklarz, a member of the New York Transgender Coalition.

The absence of language in SONDA that would ban discrimination based on gender identity caused a bitter rift between some activists and the Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide gay lobbying group and SONDA's champion in Albany.

The transgender community and its supporters have moved rapidly to advance GENDA since the SONDA vote in December.

"I think we've got everybody on the same page in terms of what the bill should say," said Charles King, co-president at Housing Works, who was a leading proponent of amending SONDA to include transgender protections.

ESPA has advocated rewriting the state human rights law to address a range of problems with it and the State Division of Human Rights, the agency that enforces the law. Language protecting transgendered people could be added to the law at the same time. This so- called "omnibus bill" is attractive because it could draw support from a broad range of communities and organizations. ESPA is moving forward on that front, but has also expressed support for GENDA.

"We're continuing our efforts to reach out, meet with allies, and conduct research on what should be part of the bill to maximize its chances of success," said Joe Tarver, an ESPA spokesman. "We're very pleased that the bill has been written with the advice of transgender legal experts. We think it's a great development and it will probably result in a much better bill in terms of its language. We are expecting to be very supportive of GENDA."

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