Opinion: A Call for New York to Hold Up the Torch of Transgender Rights

"In the absence of leadership from Washington...we must rise up to become the progressive leaders we’ve been waiting for."

By Shijuade Kadree and Kiara St. James

From the start of this scandal-scarred administration, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have signaled that they intend to place the LGBTQ community, and especially the transgender community, within their crosshairs. We’ve witnessed previously enacted transgender-affirming policies being gutted, from the repeated attempts to ban transgender individuals’ right to serve in the military, to the recent destruction of guidelines created to protect transgender people in prison.

These actions not only serve to target and erase transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people’s complex and radical identities, but are also compounded by the reality that violence against TGNC people is on the rise.

Transphobia has created the current disparities that TGNC people, especially TGNC people of color are facing. Nearly half of transgender people (47%) have been sexually assaulted; for transgender people who are black, this rate is even higher, at 53%.

HRC found that not only are transgender women estimated to face four times the risk of being killed compared to their cisgender counterparts, at least 28 transgender people nationwide lost their lives to violence in 2017, the highest on record. There are at least eight transgender people who have been murdered already this year, including Tonya Harvey, a transgender woman of color from Buffalo who was shot to death in February.

This is unacceptable.

With a lack of leadership and moral authority in the White House, the discrimination that our community has fought so hard to dismantle has now found solace and succor. It’s clear that we can’t sit idly by while this administration fails us. States like New York must take the lead on issues of LGBTQ equity and enshrine protections for transgender individuals into law, not only to ensure that all members in our community are protected and cared for, but also to serve as a model for the rest of the country.

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In order to lead effectively, we must first come to terms with the reality that even our own state has been negligent in its commitment to transgender and gender non-conforming people. LGBTQ New Yorkers as a whole have made great strides over the years, including the passage of marriage equality, but our progress has not gone far enough for so many of us. TGNC people are still among the few communities with no laws to protect them. Indeed, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacted parts of the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA) by executive action in 2016, these regulations could easily be undone should a future Governor choose to—similar to what we saw when President Trump rolled back a landmark Title IX guidance by the Obama administration directing schools on how they can protect transgender students.

Establishing effective, codified protections for TGNC New Yorkers requires recognizing the myriad challenges that the community experiences, and directly responding to areas where the federal government seeks to undo the progress that has been made.

The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 27% of New York State respondents have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, and 37% were living in poverty. Access to affirming health care, a lifeline that actualizes many in the TGNC community, is also low: A fear of being mistreated as a transgender person prevented 27% of respondents from seeing a doctor when they needed to. And compared to other LGB New Yorkers, transgender individuals were twice as likely to be unemployed. This means that basic community needs like healthcare, housing, and employment are not even being met.

It’s clear that any laws protecting TGNC people must be created with an eye toward ending this multifaceted inequity. Raising visibility of the needs of TGNC veterans and people in prison, in particular, is vital for replacing the protections that the White House is so determined to dismantle.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that in our nation of plenty, TGNC people are being treated with indifference and malice. And yet, while sobering, this reality is not demoralizing; rather, it should serve as a wake-up call. New York is ready to shake itself out of complacency and lead by creating laws that fill the void carved out by the Trump administration, enabling TGNC New Yorkers to live safely and well. We will make certain that New York becomes the blueprint for TGNC equality moving forward—because in the absence of leadership from Washington, and in response to sluggish progress in our own home state, we must rise up to become the progressive leaders we’ve been waiting for.

Courtesy of Shijuade Kadree and Kiara St. James

From left: Kiara St. James is the CEO and co-founder of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG), a trans-led activist collective fighting for the rights of the trans and gender non-conforming community. Shijuade Kadree is the Senior Director of Public Policy & Advocacy at the LGBT Center, New York’s queer community center.

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