In a Place as Backward as New York

How are Utah, Ireland, the US Army, and the US Air Force alike?

Hint: The similarity is based on a criterion that distinguishes them all from the New York State Legislature.

Utah, Ireland, the US Army, and the US Air Force have each recently made strides on transgender equality.

The New York State Legislature — not so much.

To be sure, the progress in those other jurisdictions has not been perfect. In Utah, a nondiscrimination law enacted earlier this year included problematic religious exemptions. But it did provide protections based on gender identity and expression, as well as sexual orientation.

In the US military, the Army and Navy have not fully rolled back their ban on open service by transgender personnel, but they have done away with automatic discharges based on status. The Navy and Marines have not followed suit, and it’s frustrating that the Pentagon has not moved aggressively and comprehensively on a policy change it has signaled openness on. But, at least, the military’s halting steps show recognition that change has to come.

In Albany, in contrast, 13 years have passed since the Legislature enacted gay rights protections and four since marriage equality became a reality, but the State Senate has steadfastly refused to allow a simple floor vote on civil rights protections for transgender New Yorkers.

The need to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act could not be more clear. Three-quarters of transgender New Yorkers have experienced harassment in the workplace, with 20 percent fired as a result, and another 20 percent denied promotions. About a fifth of that population has been denied housing, with the same amount having experienced periods of homelessness, and almost as many being denied medical care. More than half have faced discrimination or harassment in places of public accommodation, such as restaurants and hotels.

And here’s the most damning statistics: three-quarters of transgender youth face discrimination and harassment in schools and more than a third have suffered violent attacks.

If we read these kinds of statistics about the population of a developing nation and money could help alleviate the suffering, we’d probably click the Donate button on our screens without much thought.

But our State Senate sits on their hands as thousands of our fellow New Yorkers live in a society that denies them the basic guarantee of citizenship to live with opportunity, security, safety, and dignity.

Opponents of transgender equality throw up scurrilous, unfounded, and inflammatory fears about women being denied privacy and safety in places like bathrooms and locker rooms. In a brilliant rebuttal to that smokescreen, the measure’s sponsors — Senator Daniel Squadron and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, both Manhattan Democrats — several years ago convened a panel of leading law enforcement officials from across the state who testified there had been no criminal fallout from local ordinances in their jurisdictions. The culmination of that effort was a letter from then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly affirming the same and voicing his support for GENDA.

And the Senate did nothing.

The foot-dragging is all the more irrational given that polling finds support for the bill at nearly 80 percent. Fully 60 percent of New Yorkers live in localities that offer similar protections — and none of the absurd warnings about the perils of giving transgender people civil rights protections have been borne out.

So, transgender people who live in communities that make up 40 percent of the state’s population — including the nearby metropolitan area counties of Nassau, Rockland, Putnam, Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, and Sullivan — have no nondiscrimination protections. And there is no statewide standard of protection.

With the entire nation talking about Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, how can this state of affairs persist in Albany?

The reason is that basic human rights issues in New York State have customarily been bargained over in exactly the same way as different regions of the state have fought about public education funding or infrastructure improvements. The dignity of transgender people goes through the same State Senate sausage factory that processes the thousands of tax and spending details that make up the annual budget.

You can’t treat issues of human rights in this way. It’s cavalier and cynical. Before the Legislature adjourns later this month, the Republican leadership of the Senate must allow a conscience vote on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. This shouldn’t be about three men in a room. It should be about all New Yorkers being safe, secure, and valued in every room and in every public space.