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Governor to sign law protecting transgender people’s civil rights

Kelly Metzgar smiles in downtown Saranac Lake in January. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

SARANAC LAKE — The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act passed through both houses of the New York State Legislature Tuesday and is expected to be signed into law by the governor.

The bill would make gender identity and gender expression a protected class in employment, housing and public accommodations such as restrooms, the way race, sex and religion have been for decades.

“It codifies that you cannot discriminate against someone that is transgender based on gender identity,” said Kelly Metzgar of Saranac Lake, a transgender woman who is executive director and founder of the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance. The group provides LGBTQ peer support, gender education and advocacy. It also puts on community events — most notably Pride, in Plattsburgh, an event Metzgar started with the group three years ago.

GENDA has been put forward to the Legislature every year since 2003. It has passed the state Assembly 11 times but until this week, always died in the state Senate. Last year, it died in a Senate committee to a 5-4 vote.

This year, with a newly elected Democratic majority in the Senate, the bill passed the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee in a bipartisan vote 6-0.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to sign GENDA.

“Now when you see that you cannot discriminate on sex, religion, ethnicity, race, your orientation, you’ll now see gender identity explicitly listed,” Metzgar said. “And that’s a big change.”

Another bill passed on Tuesday would ban conversion therapy for people under 18 — a practice where LGBTQ people undergo treatments attempting to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice has been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association as harmful. The governor plans to sign that bill as well.

Cuomo signed executive actions in 2015 and 2016 that ban discrimination against transgender people and conversion therapy, but a future governor could undo those actions unless it becomes law.

“It was an executive action because the Republican-controlled Senate for 16 years refused to bring this up for discussion, consideration or a vote,” Metzgar said.

The bill would also include gender identity in New York’s hate crimes law. Additional penalties would be added if a crime against a transgender person is found as bias-motivated.

“There are real penalties for targeting any protected class,” Metzgar said. “Now we’re included. And that’s what makes that important.”

On Tuesday morning, GENDA passed 100-40 in the State Assembly and 42-19 in the State Senate. Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, and Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, each voted yes. Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, voted no.

Stec said GENDA was “good” and “reasonable,” but voted against the bill each of the seven years he has been in office because of its implications for public showers, legally protecting transgender people’s right to use the shower room of the gender they identify as.

“I think it should be up to parents when it’s time for Johnny and Susie to learn anatomy,” Stec said. “This is something in the bill that reasonable, fair-minded legislators have pointed out for at least seven years, and no one has done anything to address those concerns.”

Stec said in group shower areas, for example at a YMCA, the bill puts too much pressure on children and parents when people of the “opposite sexual anatomy are being thrust into a situation together.” Stec has said he has no objection to restrooms being similarly protected under the bill — just shower and locker rooms.

Metzgar equated this concern with rhetoric endorsing segregation, or homophobia — prioritizing the uncomfortability of one group of people over the civil rights of another.

“There is no issue having transgender people in the same restrooms as you, the same locker rooms,” Metzgar said. “We’re not here to cause issues. But we do demand that we live our life as any other person. … Don’t blame us because you’re uncomfortable. Your uncomfortability does not mean that we lose our rights. It does not mean that we cannot go where we want to go and engage in the things that every other person in society engages in.”

She added that this is where education comes in — that fear and suspicion of someone who presents or identifies differently is learned, and can be unlearned.

“Lets get over this stigma …” Metzgar said. “We’re just your neighbors. We’re your brothers, your sisters, your parents. We’re your cousins. We’re just normal people trying to live our life.”

She said the effort isn’t stopping here — the Adirondack North Country Gender Alliance still has a list of 20 points it will advocate for. Some of these include expanding gender neutral restrooms in public spaces, improving school gender policies and competence training for agencies that serve LGBTQ youth.

“There’s many more initiatives that we want to work on,” Metzgar said. “We’re not done by a long shot. This is the opening round.”

To learn more about the North Country Gender Alliance, visit its Facebook page or contact ancga@outlook.com.

Managing Editor Peter Crowley interviewed Dan Stec for this report.

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