Since news broke of the Trump administration’s plans to introduce sweeping anti-trans legislation on the federal level, lawyers and activists in New York City have been working to shore up local protections.
The New York Times on Sunday reported that the federal Department of Health and Human Services will push to impose a narrow definition of gender, as defined by genitalia at birth — a definition that contradicts scientific and medical experts on the subject — under federal law Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in education programs that receive government funds. Trump has since said he is seeking to “protect our country.”
In light of such significant rollbacks for transgender rights on the federal level, legal experts and activists are working on the city and state levels to help shield transgender residents.
The city’s Transgender Rights Bill, which ensures protections for those who identify as a gender other than the one assigned at birth, has been in place since 2002, noted one activist, but it is important to ensure it is actively implemented.
“Just passing a law doesn’t mean that it does anything — people need to push to implement it,” said Audacia Ray, director of community organizing and public advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an LGBTQ rights and support group.
The New York City Human Rights Commission in 2016 released a legal enforcement guidance on the law, which decreed that a person’s self-identified name and pronouns should be respected and that transgender people should have access to gender-segregated spaces that align with their identities. The city in 2017 then passed a law mandating single-stall restrooms be all-gender.
But such laws aren’t always implemented, said Ray, which is why the Anti-Violence Project wants to ensure local business owners are aware of the laws and are adhering to them — and to urge New Yorkers to take action when they notice the laws are not being followed. The project also will work on the economic justice front to help ensure transgender New Yorkers have access to housing and health care.
“Those things are some of the core things that can prevent violence against trans people, and the way the system is built is very discriminatory,” said Ray. “But there are New York City protections in place and we need to make sure they’re implemented.”
And while city has these local protections in place, there is still work to be done on the state level, said an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), despite being passed by the Assembly seven times, has never made it through the State Senate, leaving only flimsier regulations to protect transgender New Yorkers. The NYCLU is fighting to change that, the attorney said.
“I hope New York will remain a fairly progressive state, but the problem with regulations is they’re more easily changed under different administrations, so I think it needs to be brought under the State statute so it is explicit,” said Erin Harrist, a senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “We’ve tried for years — I think in November if the state swings more blue, we’ll hopefully be able to pass that this year.”
Harrist noted that while city and state laws have the potential to offer robust protections for transgender New Yorkers, those laws would not apply, however, when it comes to insurance that is covered by federal law.
Attorneys also must mount defenses against the federal rollbacks, said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a New York-based senior attorney with Lambda Legal, who participated in Sunday’s rally for trans rights in Washington Square Park.
"It is imperative to put public pressure on the Trump administration to abandon making these proposed changes a reality," Gonzalez-Pagan said. "But if it does move forward, Lambda Legal is prepared to fight it every step of the way.
“I think there is a hope and an opportunity for this to not occur if we can prevent it, but if it were to occur then we stand ready,” he added. “We have the law on our side, we have the medical understanding of sex on our side, we have experts on our side, and we have, more importantly, the lived reality and experience of transgender people.”