Noelle Swan

Transgender Equal Rights Law Shows Promising Start: New laws, while flawed, pave new ways for transgender rights

In Civil Rights on July 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm

This article first was published by Spare Change News on July 13, 2012.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Claudia Daut

Kim McMurray began her medical transition from male to female at 49 years old. “If I had done this in my early teens, there’s a good chance I’d have ended up in a psychiatric ward and shock therapy wasn’t uncommon then.”

She waited half a century to live as her true self, only to face so much discrimination that she considered hanging herself in the bathroom of the hospital where she worked as a carpenter.

“I thought that after working there for 18 years transitioning wouldn’t be an issue. They just made it so miserable for me that I just couldn’t take it and I quit.”

Jobless and drowning in debt, she signed her mortgage over to a former co-worker to avoid foreclosure and headed for Boston in search of work. Eventually she landed in Father Bill’s homeless shelter in Quincy for five months before receiving subsidized housing.

Until recently, Massachusetts’s law made no mention of discrimination based on gender identity. As of July 1, the Transgender Equal Rights Law went into effect after bouncing around Congress for three terms, making it illegal to discriminate against people based on their gender identity and adding transsexuals to the list of individuals protected under the state’s hate crime law.

Homeless, transgender individuals who are living on the streets and trying to find basic services and basic shelter are often the most impacted by discrimination, says state Rep. Carl M. Sciortino (D) of Medford, co-sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives.

Sciortino says that he hopes that the new law will begin to have an impact on how transgender people are treated in all communities, but especially in homeless shelters.

Anton Darknight, a 24-year-old transgender man began presenting as male at the age of 20 while living in a homeless shelter. At 22 he began hormone therapy and entered counseling at Boston GLASS, a drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. Although he felt secure enough to define his own gender identity as a young adult, life as a homeless, black, transsexual man (he calls himself a unicorn) was far from easy.

Once he started growing a beard, he says that shelter staff treated him differently. He and his girlfriend at the time moved from shelter to shelter only to be repeatedly banned for a variety of vague reasons. He says that one shelter employee told him, “We don’t allow that type of thing here.”

One of the highlights of the new law renders discrimination based on gender identity in hiring, education, housing, and credit illegal. Sciortino hopes that enforcing equitable hiring practices in shelters will lead to a more tolerant environment for transgender clients seeking a bed or a meal.

McMurray worries that laws banning overt discrimination can only go so far. “This law helps us legally, but like all laws that protect minorities from discrimination, the discrimination can go to a stealth level. They make it very hard to prove that you’ve been discriminated against.”

Others are more optimistic that the law could be the mark of a sea change in Massachusetts.

To date, transgender people experience poverty at a much higher rate than the general population, says Kara Suffredini, executive director of Mass Equality. “Discrimination is often the root cause of the crisis that led to that position of need.”

Gunner Scott, executive director of Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, sees the law’s emphasis on equity in hiring as a move in the right direction. In addition to expanding employment opportunities for transgender men and women in desperate need of a job, he hopes that having more transgender individuals working in visible jobs could help to shift the culture within organizations and the communities they serve.

While staff can set the tone for a tolerant environment, shelters are made up of clients. McMurray says that the staff at Father Bill’s was always accommodating of her needs as a transgender woman. However, the other residents were another story. “People are somewhat hardwired to see people who cross dress as being funny. I can’t tell you how many people laughed at me.”

As with any civil rights movement, implementing systemic protections for transgenders is just the beginning. When people come out from behind their desks and out from under the arm of their workplace, discrimination laws hold little water.

Darknight says that he has routinely felt threatened when in public. In his work at Boston GLASS, he counsels newly transitioned youth to accept themselves. However, when he goes out in public, he wraps his chest up tight concealing his bosom. “I don’t want to have to be stealth. If I could walk around with my beard and not have to bind [my chest], I would, but I’d rather keep to myself than get a brick in the head.”

The bridge between the new law and public acceptance will likely be long. The law itself still has holes. Although businesses cannot discriminate when hiring, the law grants no protections for transgender customers. “Banks, restaurants, basically all places where we interact in public outside of work and school are not included in this law,” Suffredini explains.

Representative Sciortino says that public accommodations were included in the original text of the bill. He says that opposition from the Massachusetts Family Institute “branded the bill as the ‘bathroom bill,’ reducing a comprehensive civil rights bill down to what bathroom transgenders should use.” He describes the removal of public accommodation language as a “necessary compromise,” but vows to push for them once again at the start of the 2013 Congressional session.

“I hope this will begin a process toward cultural change leading to transgender people being treated fairly,” Representative Sciortino says, a sentiment echoed by Suffredini, Scott, McMurray, and Darknight.

“We are people. We’re not monsters under your bed. We’re not in the bushes looking for you. We’re not going to touch you and give you the trans cooties,” says Darknight. “Just respect us for who we are.”

NOELLE SWAN is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.

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