Human Rights Revisited

DC City Council supports move to protect transgenders

by Will O'Bryan
Published on July 14, 2005, 12:00am | Comments

To bolster the nearly 30-year-old D.C. Human Rights Act's protections for transgender people in the district, council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) have introduced legislation to add ''gender identity and expression'' as a protected class. The act currently protects people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation ''for any reason other than that of individual merit,'' including race, religion, sexual orientation and personal appearance. The personal appearance inclusion could apply to transgender people, but advocates for amending the act argue that the law needs to be clearer.

''[Transgender] people who have been discriminated against said they didn't know the law was available to them,'' says Sadie Robson Crabtree, spokesperson for the D.C. Coalition to Clarify the Human Rights Act. ''They said that if 'gender identity and expression' was on the [employment] posters, people would file discrimination claims.''

Crabtree's coalition, begun largely by local attorney Jeff Light, includes 15 local organizations. Some are transgender-specific, others have a broader LGBT agenda.

''We've been speaking with various council members, specifically Graham's office, who agreed very early on to introduce the bill,'' says Crabtree. ''[David] Catania (I-At Large) introduced a similar bill in the last session, but it was too late to have a vote taken.... The main work we've been doing is building support, educating the community. There area a lot of D.C. voters -- and people in the surrounding area who work in D.C. -- to whom this matters a great deal.''

Crabtree points to the Washington, D.C., Transgender Needs Assessment Survey (WTNAS) as evidence that the Human Rights Act needs this amendment. The WTNAS, funded by the Administration for HIV and AIDS of the D.C. Government and implemented by Us Helping Us-People Into Living Inc. (UHU), polled 252 transgender D.C. residents in 1999 and 2000. The survey revealed a 42 percent unemployment rate among survey participants, with 40 percent not having completed high school, 47 percent with no health insurance, and 43 percent reporting that they have been victims of violence or crime. ''That's not even to discuss the large number of transgender people who just consider themselves unemployable. It's obvious we need this in D.C.,'' adds Crabtree.

The council apparently agrees with Crabtree -- whose coalition presented the Council with 1,198 signed postcards calling for the new verbiage -- as the entire 13-member body joined Orange and Graham in sponsoring the legislation.

''New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other large cities across the country already clearly ban discrimination on gender identity,'' said Graham, in a prepared statement. ''It's about time we did too.''

Crabtree says that Orange has promised her coalition a hearing on the legislation at the earliest possible date, likely in early autumn.

''We weren't expecting unanimous support on the council,'' Crabtree admits. ''We didn't go in there and say, 'We've got all this wrapped up.' It was a pleasant surprise, but it wasn't startling.... I think this is something that people across the political spectrum can agree on: Discrimination is bad.''

With this level of support, it may seem that adding ''gender identity and expression'' is a foregone conclusion. But Crabtree says that the coalition will continue to prepare for the hearing, and beyond, adding with a laugh that she's aware they'll have to change their Human Rights Act-specific name at some point.

''We're going to continue to collect postcards of support and prepare testimony for a hearing,'' promises Crabtree. ''We want to improve the quality of life for transgender people in D.C. We want the discrimination and poverty to stop.''

For more information about the Coalition to Clarify the D.C. Human Rights Act, call 202-917-0446