A few days ago I had an experience that will stay with me for a long time. As I walked down Broadway toward 42nd Street to meet my husband for a movie, I got asked for money by a young homeless woman. She towered over me with broad shoulders and a square chin but she couldn’t have been more than 22. She reminded me of my own children who are about that age, but since she was transgender she was among the many young people living on the streets. It is estimated that 40% of homeless young people are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and Shaniqua is one of them.
When I gave her money she hugged me close, so desperately in need of affection that I couldn’t help but hug her back despite the looks of the people passing by on the street. Shaniqua put her arm around me and asked if she could walk with me for a few blocks. She called me “mami” and told me she wished her own mother would hug her like I did. She told me how much she just wanted to be normal, how much she wanted a man to love her and to recognize her for the loving young woman she is. She looked at restaurants and said how much she would like to be able to eat in one of them, although she was grateful for the homeless shelter. She called herself “stupid” because, being homeless, she hadn’t had much education. She hoped someday to be able to cut hair. Such simple dreams, but so far from her reach.
I once went to a meeting with a group of young transgender people at which they spoke about their lives. These kids had been beaten and rejected by parents, raped, harassed and worse just for walking down the street or needing to use a restroom. I went on a lobbying trip to Albany at which I spoke to the father of a transgender boy who said that while he loved his son he wasn’t sure his son would ever be able to support himself and the constant strain was breaking his family financially and emotionally. At a fundraiser for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund I spoke to a doctor in her 60s or 70s who had to wait until she retired to finally move to New York and openly become the person she had always been.
I think about my own sons and wonder how they would have treated an openly transgender classmate in junior high or high school. They’re great kids but I’m not sure they would have risen to the occasion. Adolescence is a conformist, spineless period in our lives and my kids might have kept their distance and whispered along with the others. And they would have been the good kids, at least they wouldn’t have been abusive.
There are no easy answers for all the Shaniquas but there is one important thing we can do: pass GENDA, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. This is a bill pending in the New York State legislature that would strengthen New York State’s Human Rights Law by banning discrimination based upon gender identity and expression. New York’s Human Rights Law makes it illegal to discriminate in areas like employment, housing, public accommodations and education because of an individual’s age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics or marital status. But the law provides little protection from discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, leaving many New Yorkers without legal protection from discrimination.
Right now, pre and post-operative transgender people live in fear of being fired if their employers find out about the surgery. They face severe housing discrimination. They are asked to leave restaurants, hotels, medical facilities and educational institutions. People who cross-dress away from work live in fear that their employers will find out and fire them. They are denied credit and access to restrooms.
Shaniqua deserves equal protection under the law. GENDA (S.6349/Squadron – A.5039/Gottfried) would prohibit discrimination against transgender New Yorkers when it comes to housing, employment, credit, and public accommodations and expand New York’s hate crime laws to include crimes against transgender individuals. GENDA has been described as “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” since it passed the NYS Assembly in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, failing each of those years in the State Senate in a dismaying annual display of fear and ignorance. 2011 saw New Yorkers embrace marriage equality, and 2012 brought gains for LGBT rights across the country. Let’s make 2013 the year of equal rights for ALL New Yorkers.