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.

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