Friday, July 18, 2008

Why Governor David Paterson "gets it" (and an afterthought as to how he doesn't)

Ever since I met New York Governor David Paterson some years ago when he was the New York State Senate minority leader, I knew that he "got it" about the need for legal recognition of transgender rights under the state human rights laws.

Just yesterday (Thursday, July 17, 2008), Governor Paterson gave a speech to attendees at the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) held in Cincinnati, Ohio. In an interview given after the speech, he indirectly explained the context of how he came to this understanding, as he is quoted in the New York Times article cited above:

Governor Paterson’s views on discrimination have been shaped by the fact that he is both black and legally blind. He said one of the most painful experiences he had with discrimination came from a black businessman who refused to hire him because of his blindness.

"That’s when I realized this is kind of a universal problem that exists, this fear of the unknown, fear of others displaying difference," he said.

[citation: Paterson, at N.A.A.C.P., Warns of Racism’s Power, by Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times, published Friday July 18, 2008]

The impact of this insight is precisely the reason Governor Paterson has embraced and supported the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) and the Dignity for All Youth Act (DAYA), as well as the bill to make New York’s Marriage laws completely gender-neutral.

People who are transgendered, or gay, experience discrimination for the same reason that African-Americans still experience discrimination – it’s this, as he put it, "fear of the unknown, fear of others displaying difference."

It’s the reason a major title insurance company fired me as its chief underwriting counsel in January 2000. Just before Thanksgiving 1999, on my own time and after work, I testified at a public hearing, imploring Westchester County legislators to restore language that would have better clarified coverage for transgender people to the then-proposed county human rights bill. My testimony was televised on local and regional news, some lawyer in Long Island realized exactly who I was and called the company headquarters in Texas and asked "what kind of pervert do you have working for you?"

It took two board meetings, one for the national company and one for the New York subsidiary, but despite an excellent history of job performance, I became persona non grata at that company because by being "different" I sparked that visceral and instinctual "fear of the unknown" in the hearts of the company’s management – the same management that only a few months earlier was effusively praising my work.

In the meantime, I am hoping Governor Paterson issues an Executive Order some time soon that provides employment protection to transgender people in state employment - this is something the governor can do without waiting for the legislature. It's something trans community activists and allies were working on obtaining from former governor Eliot Spitzer's administration before he resigned. Now that the legislative session is over, perhaps Governor Paterson will be able to turn his attention to this bit of work.

Afterthought: During his N.A.A.C.P. convention speech, Governor Paterson took the time to condemn the recent satirical cover illustration from The New Yorker magazine, that depicted Senator and presidential Candidate Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, as militant radicals seeking to destroy the United States. He called it "one of the most malignant, vicious covers of a magazine I have ever seen."

I wouldn’t condemn the magazine for running the cover – I know the magazine’s purpose was to show just how malignant and vicious the lies, innuendoes and false rumors some conservative Republicans have been spreading about Senator Obama and his wife – things like how he is supposedly a Muslim extremist, or that their "fist bump" is some kind of black radical secret handshake, or that the Senator was educated in a "madrassas" school (depicted as a fundamentalist Muslim school the teaches radical Islamost "Jihad against America" propaganda as part of its interpretation of the Holy Qu’ran, its only textbook).

By printing the cover, the magazine exposed the vicious lies to the light of day as exactly how ridiculous these are – and the reaction the cover has inspired is exactly the reaction intended by The New Yorker – except I think The New Yorker editors expected more sophisticated readers to understand that the cover itself, by being so "over the top" was intended as satire.

Governor Paterson is not alone in his condemnation of the magazine cover.

The reaction to the New Yorker cover is reminiscent of the reaction of abhorrence that another famous satire, a 1729 essay by Jonathan Swift, entitled A Modest Proposal, once evoked.

As with the cartoon cover, Swift had the experience of having some, including some rather sophisticated and intelligent people, take his satire seriously and react with abhorrence.

So in this instance, I’ll part with Governor Paterson, but only slightly, and condemn the malicious and repugnant lies that were satirized by the magazine cover, rather than the cover itself.

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