Below is a piece written by NCTE founding member Babs Casbar about the work she and the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey (GRAANJ) did to pass the New Jersey gender identity anti-discrimination law this past December.
A TRANSGENDER VICTORY
By Barbra Casbar
Copyright 2007 all rights reserved
Lost in the publicity and hullabaloo of the historic Civil Unions legislation, on Dec 14th, 2006 the NJ Legislature passed an amendment to NJ’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) to include “gender identity or expression” as a protected class in employment, housing, and public accommodations . When Governor Corzine signed S362 into law on December 19th privately, without ceremony, it anticlimactically signified the result of an intense effort by a few amateur activists with many dedicated friends and political allies to pass such legislation on a statewide basis in record time! New Jersey had become only the 9th state to pass protections for transgender people.
To put things in perspective, in 1999 the State of Vermont’s legislature had pending both a Civil Unions bill and a transgender equality bill. In 2000 Vermont had Civil Unions. In January of 2007, there are still no protections for transgender people in Vermont.
In 1992, the LAD was amended to include protections for gays, lesbians and bisexual New Jerseyans. Transgenders were not included. In 2001, an appellate court ruled that some transgender people were covered under the LAD. We celebrated this decision, but soon realized that it affected very few people, and did little to educate and change the societal bias and discrimination that most transgender and gender variant people bear.
In 2003, The Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ (GRAANJ) decided to pursue a legislative solution and enlisted the services of Lisa Mottet of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to draft the necessary language. Director Frank Vespa-Papalao of the Division of Civil Rights, the NJ Government agency charged with enforcing the LAD, and his special assistant, Attorney Bear Atwood, also recognized the need for legislative clarification, and we encouraged their collaboration to draft the strongest protective language for our gender variant citizens.
Meanwhile, we went to work raising the profile of transgender people throughout New Jersey. Members of GRAANJ appeared at every Lambda Legal town meeting, networked with other member organizations of the Coalition, got the support of clergy and worked for marriage equality as part of the domestic partnership task force. We lobbied with the task force in solidarity and to raise our own profile as part of the LGBT community. I had a unique opportunity as a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National convention, to meet legislators and staffers and to explain the need for such legislation and to enlist their support in the near future for such legislation.
At the end of 2004 we had our legislation, A3678 in the Assembly, Asm. Reed Gusciora as a sponsor and by January of 2005, we had the wording we wanted and we were ready to lobby! We soon picked up several important sponsors in the Assembly, but getting a sponsor in the Senate was another story. We were told by progressive Senators that it was not necessary because we had a court decision that protected us. We heard that story often, but when the legal director of a respected progressive organization for whom we sought support refused because he feared that if the legislation failed we could lose what limited protections we had, the reality of the perceived societal bias and transphobia bit hard!
Failure was not an option! This legislation was about us, the transgender community, we be the gatekeepers of our lives. We were prepared to take the responsibility and risk of success or failure, since it is our lives! I was appalled that well meaning society regarded transgender people without respect to be able to make that decision!
Eventually, Senator Karcher took the lead in the Senate and we had some real momentum, and others soon followed, as we reached out and educated, the Coalition sent out action alert letters which kept that momentum going. When the Garden State Equality-Zogby poll showed that New Jerseyans supported a non discrimination law for transpeople by 70-19, we had something to crow about, some real facts with meat to talk about. We picked up moderate and conservative bipartisan sponsors in the Assembly and the support of the Assembly Majority Leader Roberts.
We thought we’d have success in the lame duck session, but it became apparent that all was not well when Senate President and Governor Codey refused to let it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and his staffers would not talk to us. We had to wait for a new session and a new Governor.
What is important to note is that Transequality was one of many pieces of legislation that was generally supported, but was frozen in the Senate by Acting Governor Codey and his chief of staff, so we were not alone in our disappointment. It was clear that we needed to get more support in the Senate and educate and lobby the senior legislative staffers to make this work in the new session.
We quickly filled the gaps. Judiciary Chairman Senator Adler became pro-active. We met with Senator Codey’s new Chief of Staff, and added key sponsors in both houses. In June, GRAANJ and Garden State Equality (GSE) sponsored Equality Day in which legislators and their staffers and the Governors staff met face to face with the transgender community and our families and saw the solidarity that NJ gays and lesbians have with transgender people! Senate Majority Leader Kenny soon signed on as a co-sponsor.
When I met with Sen. Codey in the late summer, he was familiar with the legislation and indicated he was on board! At summer’s end “Cher-gate”, which GRAANJ sponsored with GSE and NJ Stonewall Democrats was icing on our “cake” and proved the need for our inclusion in the LAD. In the end, things went quickly and minor glitches were resolved, and S362/A930 passed overwhelmingly by a combined vote of 102 to 8. It was the widest margin of passage and was done in the shortest amount of time of any previous statewide transgender rights bill! We are now ready to pour the champagne! Cheers!