Syracuse Approves Transgender Rights Ordinance

Jean Kessner, the lead sponsor of Syracuse's new transgender rights ordinance. | JEANKESSNER.COM

In a 7-1 vote on November 19, the Syracuse Common Council approved a measure to ban discrimination based on an individual’s “actual or perceived gender expression.”

The transgender civil rights ordinance, sponsored by Councilor Jean Kessner, amends the city’s 1990 Fair Practices Law, which barred discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Mayor Stephanie Miner, like Kessner a Democrat, will sign the measure.

Syracuse joins six other cities –– New York, Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, Binghamton, and Ithaca –– and Westchester and Suffolk Counties in the metropolitan area and Tompkins County, surrounding Ithaca, in providing nondiscrimination protections to transgender and other gender-nonconforming New Yorkers. According to the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state’s LGBT rights lobby, those jurisdictions account for more than 60 percent of the state’s population.

Despite that progress, at an October 24 legislative hearing on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a statewide measure that has languished in Albany for a decade, Christopher Argyros, the transgender rights organizer at ESPA, testified that the “patchwork” nature of transgender civil rights protections in New York and nationwide creates uncertainty and risk for community members. A resident of Suffolk County on Long Island who works in nearby Nassau County, he noted, would have protections against housing discrimination but not against mistreatment on the job.

Argyros and other LGBT advocates testified in detail about the high incidence of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness faced by the transgender community –– and the resulting impact on mental health indicators like suicide attempts.

ESPA has made enactment of GENDA its top Albany priority. Though it has repeatedly won approval in the State Assembly, the bill has never gotten a floor vote in the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee two years ago rejected it in a largely party-line vote.

According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the one no vote on the Common Council came from Khalid Bey, a Democrat who cited the risks women would face in using public bathrooms under the law, a familiar line of attack on transgender civil rights protections. At the October 24 GENDA hearing, chaired by Assemblyman Dick Gottfried and Senator Daniel Squadron, Manhattan Democrats who are the bill’s lead sponsors, witnesses uniformly testified that they were unaware of any problem of the sort Bey identified occurring anywhere a transgender civil rights law was in effect.

In fact, James Sheppard, the chief of police in Rochester, and Steven Krokoff, his counterpart in Albany, testified that local protections there have enhanced public safety and law enforcement.