Hochul Signs Trafficking Relief, Gender-Affirming Utilities Legislation

Governor Kathy Hochul, surrounded by LGBTQ leaders, signs a pair of bills at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan on November 16.
Office of Governor Kathy Hochul/Don Pollard

Flanked by LGBTQ activists and out elected officials, Governor Kathy Hochul on November 16 signed two pieces of legislation aimed at protecting trafficking survivors and requiring utility, water works, and telephone companies to respect names and pronouns of customers.

The governor signed the bills at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan, where she hailed both measures as two of the state’s latest efforts to update laws in order to remove barriers for transgender New Yorkers. Notably, the event came during Transgender Awareness Week and just four days before Transgender Day of Remembrance.

“As we witness attacks on LGBTQ rights and protections around the country, New York is once again declaring that we are a state for all — one where we don’t needlessly criminalize victims and where our trans, gender non-binary, and gender non-conforming communities are affirmed,” Hochul said in a written statement.

One of the bills, known as the START Act, allows for the vacating of convictions stemming from crimes that were committed as a result of sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and other forms of trafficking — which is a key point because the legislation broadens a similar 2010 New York State law that was limited to sex work-related offenses. Sometimes, for example, victims get charged for possessing false documents after their traffickers confiscate their legal documents, according to the bill.

The new law will also protect the confidentiality of victims, which further removes roadblocks for folks seeking employment, housing, or education.

“During National Transgender Awareness week, the notion of building visibility around the structural challenges experienced by trans and gender non-conforming New Yorkers has to be more than a gesture,” State Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens, who carried the legislation alongside Assemblymember Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, said in a written statement. “We have to legislate in a way that honors and protects their rights as members of our community. The START Act gives survivors of trafficking the fresh start they deserve — lessening the barriers to employment, improving access to appropriate immigration legal remedies, and helping break cycles of trauma for thousands of survivors across our state.”

Meanwhile, the other bill, spearheaded by two out lawmakers — Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas of Queens and Brad Hoylman of Manhattan — requires utility, water works, and phone companies to recognize the pronouns and names of customers. Ex-governor Andrew Cuomo had faced pressure over the summer from dozens groups of LGBTQ groups who were pushing him to sign the bill, known as the Affirming Gender Identity in Utilities Act, including Destination Tomorrow, Hetrick-Martin Institute, Black Trans Nation, GLSEN – Lower Hudson Valley Chapter, and the Newburgh LGBTQIA Center.

Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas of Queens carried the Affirming Gender Identity in Utilities Act in the lower chamber.Don Pollard – Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Advocates had stressed that the bill would prevent customers from being misgendered, deadnamed, or otherwise targeted by traumatic forms of discrimination. Furthermore, customers looking to update their names and pronouns with companies have encountered requirements to produce court orders to show their information.

“At a time when we are witnessing a record number of murders of trans people, particularly trans women, and of anti-LGBT pieces of legislation being introduced and passed in other states across the nation, New York must take leadership and stand against hate,” González-Rojas said in a written statement. “I’m proud to have sponsored legislation which will ensure that transgender people are respected by utility corporations as they do business in our state.”

Hoylman echoed González-Rojas’ statement, saying, “Nobody should suffer the indignity of being ‘deadnamed’ or being referred to by their non-affirmed name or gender. And with 2021 being the most deadly year for transgender and non-binary people since the Human Rights Campaign began recording this data, our new law sends an important message of support to the 78,000+ transgender and gender non-conforming people across New York State.”

Speaking at the podium before the bills were signed, New Pride Agenda executive director Elisa Crespo described the bills as a “small but important gesture of respect that goes a very long way in the lives of trans and gender non-conforming people.” She also focused her remarks on voicing a call to action in light of Transgender Awareness Week and Transgender Day of Remembrance.

New Pride Agenda executive director Elisa Crespo speaks at the LGBT Community Center.Office of Governor Kathy Hochul/Don Pollard

“I ask you to dig deep inside of yourself and ask yourself what you have done to protect and better the lives of trans people,” Crespo said. “What have you really done to be a better ally in every sense of the word? Remember that Trans Week of Awareness is about resilience, it is about solidarity, it is about organizing and moving forward while honoring the lives of those that we have lost. It is not about tokenizing trans people and asking them to deliver remarks; that is not solidarity… To that end, we must not rest on our laurels… I ask everyone in this room to recommit yourself to trans liberation and unapologetically fight alongside us even when it is not politically expedient to do so.”

The bill-signing event featured a range of elected officials, leaders, and celebrities — including “Pose” star Dominique Jackson — and the new laws drew praise from a several leaders in the state, including National Trans Bar Association co-chair Kristen Browde, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman, Sanctuary for Families executive director Judy Harris Kluger, activist and founder of Trans Equity Consulting Cecilia Gentili, and Princess Janae Place executive director Jevon Martin, among many others.

Several incoming members of the LGBT Caucus were on hand to welcome the legislation, including Tiffany Cabán and Lynn Schulman of Queens, Erik Bottcher of Manhattan, and Chi Ossé of Brooklyn