Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Background relating to County Legislator "Drag Show" protest

In 1999, former County Legislator (and current State Senator) Andrea Stewart-Cousins introduced the initial version of the Westchester County Human Rights Law. There were three public hearings on the bill.

The original bill defined "gender" as "the biological or social characteristics of being female or male." This language is identical to the language adopted that same year in Suffolk County for its human rights law. The Suffolk County law is recognized as being transgender-inclusive, while the Westchester law, with its legislative history and changed language, is not.

Before the third public hearing, the then-chair of the County Board of Legislators (and current State Assemblymember) George Latimer had a meeting with the New York (Roman Catholic) Archdiocese Office of the Family, in order to address Catholic Church opposition to the bill in previous public hearings.

Among the speakers at the first public hearing, and one of the two who focused on being anti-transgender, was Dr. Catherine Hickey, the Schools Chancellor for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Dr. Hickey is a bright woman and an excellent speaker. She lectured the legislature during her five minute talk, referring derogatorily to the proposal's definition of gender as "creative writing" and then boldly averred, "Everyone knows that there are only two genders, male and female!"

As a result of Mr. Latimer's meeting with the Archdiocesan Office of the Family, and among other things, the bill's definition of "gender" was changed to mean "the biological characteristics of being male or female." This removal of the words "or social" could be seen as an attempt to weaken the law's coverage so that it is possible that transgender people would not be covered. I als note that the Catholic office apparently also requested that "female or male" be restored to the traditional biblical patriarchal order.

I testified at the third public hearing on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week 1999. I was not fully in transition at the time, and I was "outed" by being featured prominently in news coverage, that cited my former name, on News 12, Fox 5 News and Good Day New York.

As a result of this outing, I was fired from my job as chief underwriting counsel for a major title insurance company shortly prior to the effective date of the law. After my testimony, both Mr. Latimer and Ms. Stewart-Cousins advised that they couldn't change the language again and pass the bill in 1999, but that they would get to it "next year."

The bill was enacted with the weakened "gender" definition.

In order to try to get the best interpretation possible, I wrote an article for The LOFT Community News, a publication of The LOFT: The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, Inc. based in White Plains. In the article, I pressed an interpretation of the word "biological" to mean "both physiological and psychological" aspects of beuing male or female, in an attempt to make up for the removal of the words "or social" from the law.

I circulated the article to members of the human rights commission, who have been treating transgender people as included on that basis. In the situations where I have been advised that transgender people have sought the assistance of the human rights commission, they have been treated fairly.

However, my concern ramains that the actual statutory language is weak and while principles of Administrative Law give the agency interpreting a statute broad power of reasonable interpretation, it remains a distinct possibility that a commission ruling can be overturned by a court on the basis of the legislative history.

No bill was offered until I asked Legislator Lois Bronz to do so in 2005. At the time, Legislator Marty Rogowsky was chair of the Committee on Legislation, and when I asked him to move the bill, he said that the committee would get to it immediately after the November 2005 elections - and when I went to attend the committee meeting after the election in 2005, Legislator Rogowsky advised that he had forgotten, but that it would be taken up in February 2006.

In 2006, he was no longer chair of the committee, and no action has been taken since.

After last week's meeting, County Legislator Ken Jenkins told me privately that he believes that transgender people are already covered under the existing law, but he also indicated that if the human rights commission were to request the clarification in the law making it less vague, he would support it and do his best to have it passed.

My talk to county legislators at their June 16, 2008 meeting

The New York Transgender Rights Organization

AT THE JUNE 16, 2008, 10:00 AM MEETING OF

Good morning to the honorable legislators and all who are present.

My name is Joann Prinzivalli. I live in White Plains and I am the state Director of the New York Transgender Rights Organization, or NYTRO.

I am speaking to you this morning to impress upon you the serious nature of the issue involving the need for an amendment to the county human rights law to correct the definition of gender to explicitly include protection for my people.

The bill was introduced by Legislator Lois Bronz in 2005 but has died in committee. I am appending a copy of the bill to my prepared remarks. Given several recent turns of events, I strongly urge you to pass this legislation immediately.

Needless to say, everything is not “coming up roses” for transgender people.

Transgender people are subjected to severe discrimination every day. I lost my job in 2000 because of being transgender, and ironically, because I testified at the 3rd public hearing on the original human rights bill in November 1999, begging you to reinstate the language that was removed by then Chair George Latimer at the request of the Catholic Archdiocese Office of the Family.

In Westchester County, homeless transgender women have been placed in men’s facilities. It has only been through efforts of people like Laura Newman, the former LGBT liaison to the County Executive, that in some cases that came to her attention, some accommodations were made.

Transgender people are sometimes refused service in eating and drinking establishments in this county. We live in fear of being arrested for using a public bathroom no matter which bathroom we use.

In the Bronx, just to the south, young Sanesha Stewart was brutally murdered. Because she was transgender, the New York Daily News portrayed her as a prostitute who was killed by a john when he found out she had the wrong genitals. This was not true at all.

On the floor of the State Assembly during the debate on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which ultimately passed in that chamber by a 108-33 vote, Assemblymember Peter Lopez, while acknowledging that transgender people need protection under the law, raised his opposition to the bill based on the argument that it would protect sexual predators who would lurk in public restrooms to prey on women and children. Another Assemblymember thought that young children in schools should not be exposed to a transgender teacher.

And now, we have had the experience of watching on television three heterosexual cissexual members of this august body of legislators cavorting on stage in mockery of transgender people - intentionally or unintentionally, and I am sure it was unintentionally, portraying crossdressed people as simple-minded and buffoonish, to get a laugh.

There is a very direct and insidious connection between the portrayal of transgender people as prostitutes, sexual predators and a threat to children, or parodied as buffoonish clowns, and the way a segregationist white America chose to portray African Americans not so long ago.

If I refer to motion pictures, we have the examples of the controversial 1915 DW Griffith film The Birth of A Nation, which portrayed black men as always ready to be raping white women, and the first “talkie” in 1928, The Jazz Singer, featuring white actor Al Jolson in blackface. It wasn’t just in the movies – news accounts of lurid black-on-white crime made whites fearful, while at the same time popular minstrel shows featured white people in makeup, acting in a parody of African-Americans.

Discrimination against African Americans was often seen as justified in the minds of whites, in part, because of the routine portrayal of black people as sex-crazed rapists, or as a simple-minded, shuffling, lazy lesser breed of human.

Let me put it this way. You may understand the idea of “white privilege” and how that impacts “institutionalized racism.” It’s the same thing with what I would call “cissexual privilege” and “institutionalized transphobia.”

Straight cissexuals mocking people like me in a drag show is just as much “just in good clean fun” as white people performing a minstrel show in blackface.

I hope I have illustrated the need for this technical amendment to the law. I can speak to any or all of you to amplify on this is you wish.

My response to Legislator Jenkins' apology

Hi Ken,

If it were not for the facts that the bill to amend the county human rights law to explicitly protect transgender people has not moved since 2005, and Legislators Spreckman (chair), Pinto, Alvarado and yourself are all on the Generational, Cultural and Ethnic Diversity Committee together with the bill sponsor, Lois Bronz, that is holding this up, I wouldn't have been particularly offended by your participation in the drag show at the Polish Center in Yonkers yesterday.

I saw your apology on News 12 at 5:05 PM today, and while I do appreciate your apology, I really, really would like to see the bill move and get passed eight years after George Latimer and Andrea Stewart-Cousins promised action on this amendment (right after the third public hearing on the origiunal Human Rights law in 1999).

I can discuss this with you at length on a Tuesday or a Friday, and would like to make an appoint ment to do so.

Here is the text of the 2005 bill (I can't send an attachment in this form, sorry) as I originally drafted it for Legislator Bronz:


A LOCAL LAW to Amend Chapter 700 of the Laws of Westchester County to make technical amendments in the definition of Gender as provided therein and to change the erroneous term “limited liability corporation” to “limited liability company” wheresoever in said chapter such term appears.

BE IT ENACTED by the County Board of the County of Westchester as follows:

Section 1. Section 700.02.9. of the Laws of Westchester County is hereby amended to read as follows:

Sec. 700.02. Definitions.
. . .
9. Gender means (a) the [biological] _physiological and psychological_ characteristics of being male or female, _and (b) gender identity, self image, appearance, behavior or expression, whether or not such) gender identity, self image, appearance, behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the legal sex assigned to that person at birth._
Section 2. Wheresoever the term “limited liability corporation” appears in Chapter 700 of the Laws of Westchester County, such term shall be, and hereby is, changed to “limited liability company.”

Section 3. This local law shall take effect thirty (30) days after its enactment.

NOTE: the bracketed [ ] word is deleted, and material set off between underscore characters "_" is added.

Thanks, Ken, I really do have great respect for you - but this is a situation where you experience "cissexual privilege" and I don't. (It's analogous to "white privilege," something I have come to understand from friends of color.)

I hope you understand my point of view and will be a leader in the process to get this bill passed.

Joann Prinzivalli, State Director,
New York Transgender Rights Organization

The Coverage of the Protest

Click here to go to a site where you can see the televised coverage of the protest.

The television coverage, on local Cablevision Newschannel 12 also includes clips from the county legislators' bad drag performance of You Gotta Have a Gimmick from the musical Gypsy.

There were three (and after the cameras left, a fourth arrived) protestors. The response was not bad for an action that was planned only 2-1/2 hours earlier.

There was also coverage in the local newspaper, The New York Journal News.

Responses on the http://www.lohud.com/ website ranged from supportive to clueless.

There has been internet coverage of the protest and the reasoning for it.

Click here for Autumn Sandeen's article that explains it all.

And for an interesting criticism by Monica Roberts of my analogy of the county legislators' performances to a "blackface minstrel show," click here.

As a note aimed at Monica Roberts commentary, I entirely agree with her about the performance of the performer "Shirley Q. Liquor" who actually combines bad blackface with bad drag, but I do think she may have missed my point - that the county legislators who were involved in the particular "dragface" show were criticized not because they are cissexual and straight, though those factors make it just a tad bit more offensive, but because they are all on the Westchester County Board of Legislators (and not only that, are on one of the committees that the bill has to get through before a vote) that has "dragged" its feet for more than eight years to get a simple technical amendment to the county human rights law passed, to clarify that the coverage afforded under the law does in fact cover transgender people.

Drag Show Protest Press Release

The New York Transgender Rights Organization




White Plains, New York, June 13, 2008 – The New York Transgender Rights Organization (NYTRO) protests the June 12, 2008 drag show organized by County legislator Bernice Spreckman, in which County legislators Ken Jenkins, Vito Pinto, and perhaps others, appeared in a mockery of transgender people to the laughs of an audience of seniors.
“The Westchester County legislature has failed for nearly eight years to amend the county human rights law to explicitly protect transgender people,” said Joann Prinzivalli, the state director of NYTRO and a White Plains resident. “It is shocking to see county legislators who have dragged their feet on this vital issue doing the equivalent of a KKK blackface show to mock my people.”

In 1999, former county legislators George Latimer and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both now in the state legislature, promised to rectify the deficiency in the third draft of the original county human rights law enacted in December 1999. At the time, the language that would have protected transgender people was dropped from the bill as a compromise, according to Latimer, because this was requested by the New York Catholic Archdiocese Office of the Family. A bill to rectify the situation was actually introduced in 2005 by County legislator Lois Bronz, but went nowhere in committee.

A poll done by Global Strategy Group in February 2008 shows that statewide public support for legal protection of transgender people stands at 78% of registered voters. Last week, the New York State Assembly passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) by a vote of 108-33, with better than a two-thirds majority. Prinzivalli said “The public support is out there. The time has come for county government to get there ahead of the curve.”

The New York Transgender Rights Organizartion (NYTRO) is an unincorporated association with chapters around New York State. The organization is dedicated to advance the recognition of human rights of transgender and gender variant people, who are often subjected to the worst discrimination in employment, housing, insurance, medical care and public accommodations.

NYTRO State Director Joann Prinzivalli plans an unscheduled press conference at the steps to the (presently closed) main entrance to the Michaelian County Office on Martine Avenue in White Plains at 1:30 PM today, June 13, 2008.

- 30 -

The Shot Over The Bow

The New York Transgender Rights Organization




My name is Joann Prinzivalli. While I am a member of the Advisory Board, and have been a member from its inception in 2002, I am making these comments, not in the capacity of advisor to the County Executive, but in my role as State Director of the New York Transgender Rights Organization.

Since the Advisory Board’s inception, the board has sought to provide education, guidance and advice to the County Executive on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues.

The board has made a good deal of progress on sexual orientation issues, but has been almost completely frustrated at every turn on issues affecting the transgender community.

Recommendations made to the County Executive that relate to getting his support for a bill in the County legislature to amend the county human rights law to provide explicit protection to transgender people in the county have been met with “we’re not ready for that yet.”

In 2007, and again this year, the Advisory board made a recommendation to the County Executive that he issue an executive order protecting transgender people in county employment. I was told that the 2007 draft was sent to the Law Department, and it wasn’t approved in time for the 2007 Town Hall meeting. When I asked in January of this year what progress was being made, and if there were any issues, I was told that no one knew about the executive order draft.

So I asked the Board to resubmit it this year. And the result is that we get the answer, “we’re not ready for that yet.”

Late in 2007 there was an incident involving the County Police arresting a transgender individual. The individual advised the arresting officer that he was still physically female, but since his hormone treatment had already lowered his voice and allowed him beard growth, the arresting officer did not believe him and did not advise the desk officer. The individual was placed in the male holding tank. I determined that this could have had bad consequences. After doing extensive research, I drafted a procedural memo for the purpose of starting a dialogue with the Commissioner of Public Safety. The Advisory Board approved the recommendation and forwarded it to the County Executive with the further recommendation that the County Executive help arrange a meeting with the commissioner to discuss appropriate procedure.

After months of being stonewalled, I was advised that county officials had determined that the County Police already have appropriate policies in place. But when I asked if the policies were in writing, there was no response. Apparently, it’s just a matter of “we’re not ready for that yet.”

Two years ago, the County Executive was ahead of the curve when he issued an executive order recognizing out-of-state gender-neutral marriages for county agency purposes. It was only this past month, nearly two years later, that Governor Paterson has done the same thing for state agencies.

But when it comes to transgender issues, we are still getting stonewalled.

This past week, the State Assembly overwhelmingly approved GENDA, a bill that would give human rights protections to transgender New Yorkers. The preliminary vote count was 102 – 33. Even the opponents who rose in debate acknowledged that it is time that transgender people in New York State must be protected under the law.

The writing on the wall – the answer “we’re not ready for that yet” is no longer acceptable.

Perhaps County Executive Spano needs just a little more time to get it.

In January, I was prepared to resign from the Advisory Board if we did not make progress on at least one trans proposal by tonight. With the passage of GENDA last week in the Assembly, I am now prepared to give the County Executive just a little more time.
So I am not resigning tonight as I originally planned. Not yet.

In wrestling with the ethical issues, I came to the conclusion that as long as I am expressly not acting in my capacity as a member of the Advisory Board, I can take action as an individual citizen, or in other capacities, to openly protest the lack of action from our county government.

I will no longer voluntarily restrict myself to quiet diplomacy behind closed doors in attempting to improve the plight of the transgender community in Westchester County.

The time has come. We are no longer willing to wait silently.

Thank you all for your time.