Queens Gender Bias Suit Advances

Hispanic AIDS Forum says its landlord bounced them over bathroom issue

The Hispanic AIDS Forum (HAF) will get to litigate its discrimination claim against a landlord that refused to renew its office space due to alleged bias against transgendered agency clients, according to an October 8 decision by New York Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Shafer.

Shafer rejected the landlord’s motion to dismiss the case, finding that HAF had alleged facts sufficient to present a case of sex and gender discrimination.

HAF, which has offices in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, rented an office suite in the Bruson Building on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, beginning in 1991. There were several uneventful renewals of the lease, and in 1995 HAF expanded the amount of space it was renting. The relationship between HAF and the landlord seemed harmonious until another tenant, a travel agency, began raising complaints about transgendered HAF clients using the “wrong” bathroom.

According to the complaint, late in 1999 a transgendered client informed an HAF staff member that a travel agency employee had approached her to ask why she was using the women’s bathroom, and soon after that incident, a travel agency employee told an HAF staff member that they did not like “those men that look like women using the bathroom.” HAF attempted to explain that some of its clients were transgendered people, but the travel agency complained to the landlord.

This problem was evidently exacerbated when HAF initiated special outreach to the Queens transgendered community members who needed AIDS services, resulting in more transgendered clients using the restroom facilities. Although HAF negotiated renewal leases for its space, the landlord balked at signing them and then filed a lawsuit to evict the AIDS agency.

HAF alleged that the property manager complained to its attorney about the bathroom situation, and that the building manager said he “just needed to get rid of ‘all these queens.’”

HAF claimed sex discrimination under the state human rights law, gender discrimination under the city human rights law, and disability discrimination under both. The city’s new law banning gender identity discrimination had not yet been enacted when these events took place. But, in several earlier cases, New York courts had taken the position that the existing city law, forbidding gender discrimination, could be interpreted to include discrimination based on gender identity. The oldest of these cases involved the famous transgendered pro tennis player, Renee Richards, who successfully sued back in the 1970s under the state law to compete as a woman at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills.

Shafer concluded that if HAF’s allegations about the defendants’ refusal to renew the leases because of complaints from other tenants about transgendered clients using bathrooms could be proved at trial, it would be entitled to legal relief under the state and city human rights laws.

“Plaintiff has met its pleading burden to sustain” the sex and gender discrimination claims, she wrote.

Shafer dismissed the disability claims without prejudice on technical grounds. HAF had focused its argument in the case on the sex discrimination issues, and Shafer found that it had failed to make several specific factual allegations necessary for a disability discrimination case. HAF can make new allegations if it wants to revive its disability claims as the litigation proceeds.

The Lesbian and Gay Rights & AIDS Projects of the American Civil Liberties Union represent HAF in its legal dispute with the landlord.

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