On a solemn occasion such as this, when we remember those we have lost to violence and hate, it is important to understand precisely what legislation and law can and cannot do. Non-discrimination laws – such as the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), both currently pending in the New York state legislature – can help protect us from discrimination and provide legal redress, but they cannot eliminate discrimination. Hate crimes laws – such as the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (LLEEA), the federal hate crimes bill signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier this month – can help reduce hate crimes against transgendered* people but cannot eliminate hate crimes.
Law is an important but a weak tool of social change. Without public support, legal change cannot alone fundamentally alter the reality of our lives as LGBT people. It is only through a change of hearts and minds that we can significantly change the grim reality that greets many members of our community as they try to make their way in a still-hostile society.
But in addition to providing legal recourse to the victim, what law can do is to send a signal to those who would commit discrimination or hate crimes that such acts are unacceptable, and so enactment of transgender-inclusive statutes can powerful influence the governing discourse of social relations with regard to how to treat transgendered and gender-variant people.
Our philosophy at the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) is to view law as a tool to educate the public as well as a means of providing transgendered and gender-variant people with legal redress. Just as we must pursue legal change to protect transgendered and gender-variant people from discrimination, we must use legislation and litigation to educate the public so that members of the public to increase understanding of the pervasive discrimination and violence that transgendered and gender-variant people still face, even in those cities, counties and states with transgender-inclusive non-discrimination and hate crimes laws.
The challenge for us is not only the political challenge of getting legislation through city councils, county and state legislatures, and Congress; it is also the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of our family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens. So as we commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance, in remembrance of all those we have lost to violence and hate, let us join together in re-committing ourselves to that task.
*While GLAAD advocates the use of the term transgender over trangendered, we recognize and respect the preference of many activists for the latter.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy and led the campaign for the New York City transgender rights law enacted in 2002. She also serves as vice-president of the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.