The Time Is Now for Transgender Equality

Just days ago I sat in the New York State Assembly chambers and watched legislators debate, and then pass, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) for the seventh consecutive year. As Transgender Rights Organizer for Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's statewide LGBT rights organization, I watched as assembly member after assembly member stood up and explained why they were voting yes, why transgender lives matter. I watched as the most vocal conservative opponent was forced to acknowledge that transgender issues are serious, and that discrimination should not be tolerated. Assembly member Richard Gottfried, the bill's sponsor, ended simply by saying, "The reality is this is an important bill for human rights, and I vote in the affirmative."

Last week I was able to walk into a drugstore and buy a copy of Time magazine with transgender actress Laverne Cox on the cover, next to the headline, "The Transgender Tipping Point: America's Next Civil Rights Frontier." I was able to use that cover in a presentation I gave to employees of the Department of Health on transgender issues. During that presentation I was able to announce to the room that the state of New York had, after years of advocacy from Pride Agenda and other allied organizations, updated its policies on gender changes for birth certificates, doing away with the outdated practice of forcing transgender people to go through invasive medical procedures -- a practice that essentially resulted in the state-mandated sterilization of transgender New Yorkers and had already been long-discarded when it came to updating driver's licenses and passports. The entire room broke into spontaneous applause at the news.

Just days before the news on birth certificates broke, headlines across the nation proclaimed that exclusions on transgender-related health care were being lifted from Medicare. The week before that the mayor of Rochester, Lovely Warren, announced at the Pride Agenda's annual Spring Dinner that the city of Rochester would join a daily-growing list of cities across the nation to offer transgender-inclusive health care to all municipal employees. Last month Maryland became the 18th state in the nation to pass a law barring discrimination against transgender people. Not long before that was the announcement made by the New York City Department of Education that it had updated its policies to make sure that all New York City public schools would be safe and inclusive spaces for all transgender students. Janet Mock has spent months bringing widespread media attention to transgender lives, and her memoir, Redefining Realness, became a New York Times bestseller. Laura Jane Grace has been touring the country with her band Against Me!, making kids dance and mosh to the tracks on their latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Keeping up with every video about a transgender child gone viral, every article about a transgender prom king or queen, every op-ed from The New York Times' editorial board calling for transgender rights (three in the past month!), every new transgender character on a television show or in a comic book, every legislative or policy victory is like trying to keep up with a growing snowball rolling down Mt. Everest.

When I was growing up in Dutchess County, New York, hanging out at the South Hills Mall and talking about the latest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my friends, I would have been hard-pressed to find a single snowflake. I'd never knowingly met another transgender person, let alone another transgender boy. I'd never seen a transgender character in a book, on a television show, or in a movie, with the exception of a couple of fanciful and stereotypical depictions in movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I'd never heard of a real, successful transgender person, ever. I didn't even know the word "transgender."

I didn't have a word for who I was.

We are witnessing a truly remarkable moment, brought to us by the intersection of decades of hard work by fearless activists, and by the unstoppable dissemination of history made possible by information technologies. When I was a teenager watching my VHS copy of A Clockwork Orange and marveling at its groundbreaking soundtrack, I had no way to learn that the musician who created it was a transgender woman, because that history had been erased from the books I'd read, just as the homosexuality of Bayard Rustin and Lorena Hickock had been expunged from the history I'd been taught. Now history is at the fingertips of everyone with access to a wi-fi connection, and we in the transgender community have made the most of the opportunity presented to us and finally made it impossible to erase our voices, once and for all.

And finally, people are listening.

After I graduated from high school, I left New York to go to school in the Midwest. That day on the El train when I stared down with a shock of recognition at an article on transgender Chicagoans in one of the cheap, throwaway daily papers that another passenger had left on the seat next to me, I could never have imagined where I am now: a proud, gay transgender man, fighting for transgender rights in the state where I had grown up thinking that no one else in the whole world could have any idea what it felt like to be like me. Now I know that I was never alone, that I had allies -- family -- all across the state, and the country, and the world.

I want to be able to go back to my hometown and walk past the places I grew up and know that I finally have the same rights that everyone else in New York has -- the right to be free of legal discrimination at the drive-in theater where I used to go with my friends, the diner where I used to eat with my family, the grocery store where we used to shop. I want to know that I could get a job there without fear of being fired just because my employer found a piece of paperwork with my old name on it. I want to look at the house where I lived when my dad first taught me how to ride a bike without training wheels, where my sisters and I used to play and pretend to be cats or spies or Ninja Turtles, and know that if I wanted to live in that house, if I wanted to create my own family there, I couldn't be refused just because of who I am.

At the beginning of the GENDA debate in the Assembly last week, another assembly member asked Richard Gottfried why, since the New York State Senate had refused to bring GENDA up for a vote time and again, the Assembly was wasting time on GENDA again. Gottfried said, "Well, to quote the great Martin Luther King, 'It's always the right time to do the right thing.'"

It is time for the New York State Senate to do the right thing and stop transgender New Yorkers from being treated like second-class citizens. It is time for Gov. Cuomo to become an integral part of this historic moment in transgender rights and call for the Senate to bring GENDA to a vote. It is time for GENDA to become law.

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