Monday, June 27, 2011

Transgender Lobby Day: Strength in our Solidarity, Power in our Numbers

Editor's Note: Enjoy this great post about Transgender Equal Rights Lobby Day by Matt Bennet, our public affairs assistant, pictured at right with State Rep. Byron Rushing.

I often think that humans only act in their own self-interest, putting in their best when they will seemingly benefit the most. However, last Thursday at Transgender Equal Rights Lobby Day at the Massachusetts State House, I saw hundreds of allies of the transgender community come out to support the passage of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill. Inspirational speeches from legislators such as Rep. Byron Rushing and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz showed the unity of an LGBT community that is often pushing for vastly different policy changes, legislation, and modes of social acceptance. Hearing from a transgender military veteran and being reminded of the daily discrimination experienced by the trans community was enough to bring a grown gay man to tears. (I didn’t. I swear.) It was beautiful to see lesbians, gays, and bisexuals going to lobby for the rights of transgender people, many of them friends, coworkers, family members, and life partners. After the speeches, over two hundred activists descended upon the offices of their legislators to implore their support for the bill. I am grateful that my state representative, Kevin Honan, is a co-sponsor of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill in the House, but I met with an aide Sen. Steven Tolman to ensure his place on the right side of history. After a short 15 minute chat, I was assured that Sen. Tolman was a “huge supporter” of the bill, although it is his policy as Assistant Senate Majority Leader to not sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

Being a veteran of an East Texas Catholic school, I like to think of myself as thick-skinned from the time I spent verbally defending the most basic rights I believe are deserved by the LGBT community. However, I often forget how little I must defend these beliefs, having surrounded myself with supportive friends and family, working at GLAD, and living in the City of Boston. The importance of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill lies not just in the protections offered by the state, but in the dignity it confers upon transgender people, letting them know that there are millions of people who love them and support their right to live freely in the Commonwealth. This bill is about basic dignity for everyone; it is a true incarnation of the American promise for “liberty and justice for all”. Rep. Rushing put it correctly when he said “You are not coming here for us to give you these rights. You already have these rights. You were born with these rights.”

Although our battles have resulted in hard-won victories, we have a long road to walk. As we come to the close of LGBT Pride Month, this is an excellent reminder of why we come together, for we know there is strength in our solidarity and power in our numbers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Know Your Rights: Thank You Volunteers!

Did you see us at Boston Pride? This year, GLAD not only had a marching group, we also had “Beacon Hilda”—a green duck boat. This event, like much of what GLAD does, could not have been accomplished without a group of wonderful, enthusiastic, committed volunteers. The volunteers came one evening to help us make signs that celebrated the work GLAD has done for the past 33 years, and then on the day of Pride helped to decorate “Hilda,” march with GLAD and staff our information booth at the Pride Festival.

Volunteers play a critical role at our various events like the Summer Party that will be held at the
Provincetown Monument on Saturday, July 30th, from 4-7 pm. We fill a van with volunteers in Boston on that morning, and they work all day setting up for the Summer Party and then help to take everything down. The van doesn’t return to Boston until very late at night—that’s a dedicated group of volunteers!

Our largest event each year is our Spirit of Justice Award (SOJ) Dinner, and again we depend on many volunteers to help make this event the huge success it always is. We are very excited this year that we are honoring the entire Patrick family at the SOJ Dinner. So after working hard, the volunteers are rewarded by being part of a very memorable evening.

Each department at GLAD—Legal, Public Affairs and Education, Development—has interns for the fall, spring and summer semesters who assist us in carrying out our work. They learn from us and very often we learn from our interns.

The Legal InfoLine that I manage is staffed by volunteers. Currently there are 30 InfoLine volunteers—all of whom have gone through 17 hours of training on LGBT/HIV legal issues and then have committed to working 3 hours a week for 6 months. I am always amazed at the dedication, compassion and intelligence of these volunteers. It is a pleasure to work with them. They need to become acquainted with over 75 publications that GLAD has produced on LGBT/HIV legal issues in the six New England states, become familiar with other agencies that may help with other aspects of their situation and learn how to provide attorney and legal organization referrals for those people who need legal advice.

Over the 7 years I have worked at GLAD, over 200 volunteers have gone through the InfoLine training. Many of these volunteers have stayed long over their 6 month commitment—one volunteer has been working on the InfoLine for almost a decade. I feel privileged to be able to work with such an incredibly talented and committed group of people. The next training for the InfoLine will be in October.

Each year we try to thank the volunteers for the important contribution they make to the success of GLAD’s work. This year we had a party to celebrate our volunteers on June 7th at Gillian’s. On behalf of everyone at GLAD, I just want to once again thank all our volunteers for the important role they play in helping GLAD to carry out its mission of equal justice for all. If you want to become a volunteer, go to to learn more and sign up!

More Volunteer Photos

Boston Pride Photos

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

30 Years and the Work Continues: Winning Legal Protections for People with HIV

AIDS Law Project Director Ben Klein, with Sydney Abbott

On June 5, 1981 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published a report on five previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles who had all been diagnosed with the same very rare form of pneumonia. Two of the men were already dead. It was the first documentation in medical literature of the disease we now know as AIDS.

GLAD’s earliest HIV/AIDS cases reflected fear, uncertainty about how HIV was transmitted and the urgency of a life-threatening crisis. For example, in 1983 GLAD and AIDS Action Committee convinced Beth Israel Hospital to abandon its policy of placing all patients identified as being “high risk” for AIDS on blood and bodily secretion precautions – a policy that singled out gay men, Haitians, intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs who came to the hospital even for reasons unrelated to AIDS. In 1985, we brought one of the first employment discrimination cases in Massachusetts against a company that refused a gay man’s return to work after a period of sick leave because his co-workers feared he had AIDS.

The AIDS crisis also highlighted the utter lack of legal protections for same-sex couples. In 1987, before John Reilly succumbed to AIDS, he asked that his partner, Kevin Clarke cremate him and store his ashes in his favorite piece of Rose Fiestaware. The hospital, however, turned John’s body over to his estranged mother, who refused to abide by her son’s wishes. GLAD and cooperating attorney Gary Buseck, who’s now GLAD’s legal director, filed suit and won the return of John’s ashes to Kevin.

In 1994, Sydney Abbott’s dentist in Maine refused to treat her because of her HIV status. With AIDS Law Project Director Ben Klein as lead counsel, GLAD fought for Sydney’s right to treatment all the way to a U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1998, a trailblazing lawsuit that marked the first time the high court heard an HIV/AIDS case. The Supreme Court’s Bragdon v. Abbott ruling established nationwide protection against discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act for all people with HIV.

Thirty years on, an HIV diagnosis no longer equals a rapid decline and painful death. Medical advances have enabled people to lead healthy, productive and long lives. Legal advances ensure that they do so with dignity and privacy, and GLAD is proud to have played a part in bringing about those changes.

Until there is a cure, however, we remain vigilant. “Medical progress has given rise to new legal issues,” Klein observes. “Many of the cases we are seeing today are arising because people with HIV are now living long lives.”

Two prominent examples of this phenomenon came in 2001. GLAD successfully represented Belynda Dunn, a beloved AIDS activist who was dying from end-stage liver disease from Hepatitis C. Dunn was denied a liver transplant by her private HMO on the grounds the treatment was experimental because of her HIV status. Likewise, we successfully sued MassHealth, the state Medicaid agency, after it denied an anonymous client (“John Doe”) a liver transplant on the same grounds. Both Dunn and Doe received their transplants, and because of these cases, both public and private health insurers began covering transplants for HIV positive patients.

GLAD is also combating insurers who routinely refuse coverage for treatment of lipodystrophy, a condition many experience as a disfiguring, debilitating side effect of the medications that are allowing people with HIV to live long, productive lives. In 2008, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled in favor of our 15-year-old plaintiff Ashley Shaw in her fight to get MassHealth coverage for doctor-recommended surgery to alleviate a large fat pad from the back of her neck, a manifestation of lipodystrophy. In 2010, GLAD successfully represented Amit Dixit in his fight to get his HMO to cover liposuction surgery, after the insurer initially refused coverage on the grounds that it was merely cosmetic.

While the fear of HIV has abated, is hasn’t disappeared. In 2008, GLAD filed a lawsuit that allowed AIDS Services of Monadnock Region (ASMR) to operate a group home for people with HIV in Gilsum, New Hampshire, without many of the onerous restrictions the town previously imposed, including restrictions on people with criminal convictions or histories of substance abuse.

“It’s clear,” says Klein, “that while the face of the epidemic has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, stigma about HIV remains too common and the need for strong legal protections is as critical as ever.”

And so, the work continues.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Victory for Dignity and Respect as Maine Votes to Keep Protections for Transgender People in the Human Rights Act

The Coalition Team:
Ali Vander Zanden (EqualityMaine organizer), Kate Knox (EqualityMaine lobbyist),
Janson Wu (GLAD) and Zach Heiden (MCLU Legal Director).

Post by Staff Attorney Janson Wu

Tuesday night at 10:30 pm, in a vote of 81-61, the Maine House of Representatives voted down LD 1046, a bill that would have repealed protections for transgender individuals to use the restroom that matches their lived gender. Wednesday morning, the Maine Senate finished the job with a vote of 23-11 to kill the bill. It is hard to overstate what a horrible outcome it would have been for this bill to pass, and GLAD (including Jennifer Levi, Mary Bonauto, Laura Kiritsy and myself) was proud to work tirelessly with our coalition partners (including Maine TransNet, MaineEquality, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Women’s Lobby, and the Maine chapter of GLSEN) to ensure that these vital human rights protections were not rolled back for transgender people.

I knew it was going to be a late night when I got in the car Tuesday at 2:30 pm to make the 3 hour journey to Augusta. When I left, our lobbyists were still “cautiously optimistic” about our vote count, but we all understood that the situation was fluid, and having a GLAD attorney on hand would be helpful in case any last minute amendments came up that needed to be analyzed. Others were on call through cell phones, including Maine’s trans community leaders, in case any last minute decisions needed to be made.

This most recent campaign to strip rights away from transgender individuals, to some extent, was motivated by two of GLAD’s cases – both cases that I’ve worked on with my colleagues Jennifer Levi and Ben Klein. The first was GLAD’s case against Denny’s restaurant for refusing to allow a transgender woman to use the women’s restroom, which recently settled very favorably for our client. The second case is an ongoing case against the Orono School District for failing to protect a transgender girl from harassment and bullying as well as excluding her from using the girl’s bathroom, which further stigmatized and targeted her for being transgender.

At the state house, the mood of our lobbying team remained cautiously optimistic, but as the night went on, things looked better and better. Representative Priest, one of our major champions, stood first to speak. In no uncertain words he laid out a forceful argument for how this bill would not only hurt transgender people but businesses as well, by opening them up to liability were they to try to implement the undefined and unenforceable “biological sex” standard the bill would have permitted. We knew that business concerns were high on legislators’ minds, and we wanted to alleviate any concerns right off the bat.

Representative Fredette, the main sponsor of the bill, stood up next to speak, and he took a familiar conciliatory stance. “Why can’t we find consensus on this? No rights can be absolute. I am just trying to find consensus between two legitimate interests,” he argued. These are hard arguments to counter, because they sound reasonable and not bigoted.

But Representative Priest shared a story that showed the lie in Fredette’s arguments. He told about how he grew up in the segregated South, where school dances were segregated between white and black children, and how when the courts finally ordered integration, people were so uncomfortable with the idea that they ended the dances entirely. But, we don’t have that luxury with bathrooms, he reminded us. Everyone has to use the bathroom. And yes, people may feel uncomfortable sharing a bathroom with someone they perceive to be transgender, just as some white people felt uncomfortable attending a dance with black students. But, isn’t that the purpose of anti-discrimination laws – to change our society’s acceptance of difference through education and experience?

Representative Priest’s argument was spot on.

Finally, it was time for the vote. The vote board on the wall started lighting up with reds and greens (our side was red), and our lobbyists started noting which legislators we picked up that we didn’t know were on our side, as well as who we had lost. Even though it was looking good, there was no way to know for sure until the final vote count came in: 81 – 61, an amazing margin that included 20 Republican votes with us. Not to mention, not one Representative spoke in favor of the bill other than the lead sponsor. While the bill would still have to be voted on in the Senate, it was now a foregone conclusion that it was dead.

After the vote, we went down to the entrance of the chambers to thank our supporters. I first made sure to thank the incredible Democratic Minority Leader, Emily Cain. Cain had spoken emotionally, from personal knowledge, about our client, the Orono transgender student who in the last few weeks had bravely put herself out there and lobbied countless legislators, opening their eyes to the reality of transgender children for the first time. It is no overstatement that we owe much of our success to this amazing girl.

I also had the pleasure of thanking Representative Knight, one of the 20 Republicans who voted with us. Here was a representative who was not on our side when it came to LGB rights, but could not have been more forceful about the importance of transgender rights. As Representative Knight described in his floor remarks, his transformational moment came from reading Jennifer Boylan’s book, She’s Not There, and then meeting her through our coalition’s lobbying efforts. By the end of his educational process, he was one of our strongest champions and enormously helpful in persuading so many of his Republican colleagues. As I thanked him for his leadership, it was a wonderful reminder that while it may seem impossible to change the minds of our most ardent opponents, you never know for sure until you talk with them first.

Weary but exhilarated, I made it home around 2 am (thanks to 3 diet cokes on the way!), only to return to the office for a 9 am conference call with transgender leaders in NH about how to build a statewide transgender advocacy and support organization that could hopefully bring NH as far as Maine has come. While on that call, we got word that the Maine Senate was now voting on LD 1046, and watching online, I saw that final vote, 23-11, against the bill. Victory, again, and now the bill was officially dead.

It is hard to overstate what an enormous victory this was for the transgender community – to tackle head on one of the most difficult issues that opponents of transgender rights have used against us, in an entirely Republican-controlled state legislature. It won’t be our last battle, but hopefully, it will be the first of many victories to come as we learn from experience the most effective strategies and arguments in support of the fundamental human right that we all share to be treated with dignity and respect – including in restrooms.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


GLAD Staff Attorney Janson Wu spoke Monday, June 6 at the
MA Department of Transportation's annual LGBT diversity luncheon

Yesterday, I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech to a number of amazing directors and employees at the Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation’s annual LGBT diversity luncheon. It was one of our more unusual requests, but to be honest, I was very excited to do it. I have to confess, I’m a little bit of an urban planning and traffic geek. I find traffic science fascinating, maps mesmerizing, and public transportation exciting. I even like to brag about my ability to predict exactly how long it will take to get anywhere on the T – no matter the day of the week or time of night.

So, being able to talk to the brand new T worker whose lesbian daughter is getting married this September, or the Director of the DOT’s Civil Rights Department, whose teenage son just came out, was just a total privilege.

If only I could have scored a T discount as well!

Here’s the speech I delivered at the event. Happy Pride!

What a wonderful way to kick off Pride Week, which culminates this Saturday in the Pride Parade and celebration at City Hall. I wanted to talk a little today about why I believe Pride celebrations are so incredibly important still, despite all of the progress that we’ve made on LGBT rights in the last few years.

You see, Pride is not just about a bunch of extremely well-dressed drag queens dancing on incredibly well-decorated floats covered in way too many rainbow flags. (Although, that certainly is an integral part of any Pride parade.)

Instead, I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that Pride began as a survival response from a community that was literally besieged with hatred, discrimination and violence, often at the hands of our own government.

The very first pride march happened on June 28, 1970 to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in NYC, where the LGBT community fought back for the first time against systematic police raids of known gay bars, including the regular beating and arresting of then men who were in these bars simply trying to build a community together. However, the Stonewall Riots did not come out of the blue. It was the expression of long pent-up anger and humiliation due to decades of severe and pervasive persecution, discrimination and violence against LGBT people.

It is so important that we remember this history in order to fully appreciate the meaning of Pride. For example, beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, many states, including Massachusetts, prohibited openly gay people from being served in bars and restaurants. That’s right – many restaurants literally would have signs in their windows saying, “We do not serve homosexuals,” and it was legal. Here in Boston, even as late as 1965, the city council attempted raze to the ground all the gay bars in the city, as part of a campaign to destroy these “incubators of homosexuality and indecency,” as one city councilor put it.

From the 1950s until the 1970s, the federal government banned the hiring and employment of gay people, in effect waging a witch hunt for gay federal employees that destroyed countless lives. The federal government also targeted and quashed any LGBT political organizing, including seizing membership lists, arresting LGBT organizers in their own homes, and prohibiting the mailing of LGBT political publications through the post office.

And until the 1960s, being gay was a crime in every single state in this country. And it was not until 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned the remaining 13 state laws that criminalized same-sex sexual intimacy.

We don’t have time to go through the entire history of the LGBT movement, but I really encourage all of you to learn about this history, because it’s only with a full understanding of this history that we can fully appreciate the gains that we’ve made.

At the same time that we have made progress, there are still some shocking deficiencies. For example, today, it is wonderful that gay and lesbian couples can marry in 5 states, including MA, as well as the District of Columbia. At the same time, only 16 states and the District of Columbia allow s-s couples jointly to adopt a child, and until very recently, Florida and Arkansas even prohibited any gay person from being a foster or adoptive parent, even if it were in the best interests of the child.

And while I am proud that Massachusetts has had sexual orientation antidiscrimination protections since 1989 (the second state in the country to pass such a law), there are still almost 30 states where you can be fired, evicted, or refused service in a restaurant for being gay or lesbian. And Congress has yet to pass a federal anti-discrimination law for LGBT workers, despite efforts for the last 2 decades to pass such protections.

Even in Massachusetts, our existing anti-discrimination protections do not extend to transgender people. It’s for that reason that I applaud the Governor for recently instituting an executive order protecting all transgender state employees from discrimination on the job, and I know that the Department of Transportation is committed to implementing that anti-discrimination policy in a way that is thoughtful and respectful to all involved. What a powerful message that sends to our society.

All of which brings me back to the importance of Pride. Again, I believe that Pride remains important because it reminds us of the painful history of discrimination and violence against LGBT people, it commemorates every year the incredible progress that we have made, and it hopefully inspires us to continue to work toward the full equality of LGBT people in our commonwealth and in our country.

However, the primary reason why I think Pride is so important is because of the message that it sends to our children that it is not only ok to be gay or transgender, but it is ok to be proud of who are. And that they can be proud of who they are and continued to be loved and protected by the adults around them. This is so particularly important to LGBT youth, who are coming out at even younger ages and still sadly face a hostile world intent on destroying their sense of self-worth, as evidenced by the epidemic of LGBT youth suicides in the last few years.

The only way we can counter these horrible tragedies is to engender a sense of positive self-worth and self-esteem in our youth through example, through Pride – by convincing them not only does it get better, but we as parents, relatives, teachers, and friends will do everything in our power to make it better for them.

I’d like to end by reading something by one such parent doing everything he can to make it better. He is the father of a 4th grade transgender daughter who was so severely harassed in her elementary school in Maine that he and his wife were forced to move to another school district to protect her safety. GLAD is representing this family in their lawsuit against the school district for failing to adequately protect this girl.

This father, his family and in particular his daughter, are my heroes for this year’s Pride. But this father wasn’t always such a champion for his daughter. Here is an excerpt of a piece he wrote about coming to fully accept his transgender daughter:

A year ago I took my daughter to a college class to hear a transgender college professor talk about her life. I wanted her to see that there are a number of strong, successful transgender women that she can admire and emulate as she continues to develop her own core values. Sitting proudly in that classroom as a changed man, I don’t like to think about what I may have said if that same transgender professor had come to my classroom 25 years ago.

My 12 year old transgender daughter is my mentor. It’s tough to put into words what a profound impact this small person has had in changing my core values, but since the young age of five, she has unknowingly encouraged me to open my eyes and heart to new ideas. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve watched her experience severe emotional pain and physical frustration, but thanks to support and guidance, I’ve watched as she’s become a confident, happy and healthy child. And as she changed, I changed too.

Pride is also ultimately about change. It’s about celebrating the change that we’ve accomplished over the last 40 years since Stonewall, from when you could have been beaten and arrested for going to a gay bar to today, when our own Governor marches proudly in the Pride parade.

Pride is also about the change that still needs to happen. It’s about changing our laws, so that LGBT people do not need to worry about being fired in almost 30 states in our country. It’s about changing the hearts and minds of people, so that LGBT people do not need to fear being attacked or even murdered simply for being gay or transgender.

And finally, it’s about changing our culture from one where a gay joke here or there is no longer seen as something to be tolerated, or worse, funny. Rather, it’s about changing toward a culture where we take full responsibility for the messages that we send to our kids, a message that by fully respecting and accepting people, not just despite but because of our differences, we celebrate our common humanity and hopefully teach others to do the same. Pride is all about the examples that we choose to set, generation after generation, one rainbow flag at a time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hotline: A fortuitous Friday-night phone call brings our Transgender Rights Project Director a front-row seat for CT’s long-awaited victory

by Jennifer Levi, Transgender Rights Project Director

I was driving home from services at our temple last Friday night at nearly 10 p.m. when my cell phone rang. The call was coming from “860,” which I knew was Connecticut. I couldn’t easily imagine who would be calling me at that hour. I was 3 days into a 28-day cleanse, my 8 year-olds’ Little League team got creamed earlier that evening, Friday night services had run late, and I was wishing I was already in bed by now. If I had been, I might not have even answered the phone call. But I did, and barely recognized the voice on the other end which said simply, “They’re running the bill tonight.” “Who is it?” I asked.

“It’s me, Jerimarie,” said the voice. “Betty just called. The Senate is running the bill tonight. Do you think you can make it?”

Without thinking, I answered, “Of course. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

I could hardly believe that the moment for which I’d waited nearly six years had arrived. H.B. 6599, Connecticut’s transgender civil rights bill, had passed the House of Representatives nearly two weeks ago and I’d been waiting impatiently for it to be run in the Senate. But each time I e-mailed Betty Gallo, our staunch lobbyist who’s been tirelessly working this bill for years, there was little to report. I sent her a short e-mail earlier in the day asking, “Any info on timing?” She quickly replied, “No.” Honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about the bill when I left work that afternoon for my son’s baseball game. But when the call came from Jerimarie Liesegang, head of the Connecticut Transgender Advocacy Coalition (also a visionary, tireless and devoted advocate), I knew I needed to get there quickly.

I arrived at the State House in Hartford just after 11 p.m. and bolted up to the Senate Gallery on the top floor. I had just gotten a text from Sally Tamarkin, the head of CtEquality, the coalition (of which GLAD was a part) that lead the fight to pass the bill: “Bathroom amendment fails 21-15,” it said. One amendment down, I thought. Only six or seven more to go. I knew it could be a very long night, but I was just happy our moment had arrived.

I was nervous. Very nervous. The radical right had amped up its opposition, putting out robo-calls to rally conservatives to contact our Senate supporters and weaken their resolve. They were doing all they could to prevent us from passing statewide protections for transgender people in Connecticut. And, though I had been very hopeful after the bill passed the House (which I thought would be the tougher of the two chambers), I started to doubt that this would be our year. In my heart, I feared that if we couldn’t get it done this year (with such tremendous support from Gov. Dannel Malloy), we might never be able to.

Entering the Senate Gallery, it felt great to see Sally, Jerimarie, and other CtEquality members like Gretchen Raffa and Diana Lombardi. Along with so many others, we had put so much time, effort, and sweat into passing H.B. 6599. I suddenly felt invigorated even as the clock hit midnight and Senators began to say “Good morning, Madame Chair,” in contrast to “Good evening, Madame Chair,” when they began their remarks. Suddenly I saw Sen. Beth Bye of West Hartford, rise to address the chamber. She spoke poignantly of her own educational journey on trans issues and this bill. She recalled attending a panel discussion where three transgender people shared their personal stories, about how moved she had been, and how essential she knew these protections to be. Sen. Bye was so thoughtful and persuasive, I wondered how anyone could vote against this bill.

Still, there were amendments to be voted on, all of them aimed at weakening support for the bill. We’d defeated an exclusion for protections for transgender people in bathrooms (15-21), an exemption for teachers from protections under the law (16-20), an enhancement for criminal penalties for someone who falsifies their gender identity, whatever that might mean (14-20), an even broader public accommodations exception (15-19), and were now listening to support for an amendment that would require transgender people to have the fact of their being transgender noted on their driver’s licenses (eventually defeated 8-26). The oppositions’ floor statements began to feel rehearsed and hollow. I dared to hope that we had the votes and would actually see this thing pass.

Suddenly, Majority Leader Martin Looney was speaking. I knew we were close to a vote. The bells rang and senators were called over the loudspeakers to return to the chamber for a final vote on H.B. 6599. It was almost 1 a.m. One by one, the Senators voted and I counted the red and green dots on the board. There were 36 Senators voting. Finally, I saw 19 green dots. That’s all we needed.

We had finally done it. I could hardly believe this moment had arrived, and that I was there to witness this historic vote. The clerk called out the final vote 20 in favor, 16 opposed. A short but loud scream of joy came from behind me.

Connecticut’s transgender residents will finally have the full protections of the state’s anti-discrimination laws once Gov. Malloy signs the bill, as he has already promised. Needless to say, I’m really glad I answered my phone.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Know Your Rights: I’m HIV+ and trying to get a job. What are my legal rights?

Because of a 1998 US Supreme Court ruling in a GLAD case, Bragdon v. Abbott (plaintiff Sydney Abbott is pictured here, left, with AIDS Law Project Director Ben Klein), it is clear that anyone who is HIV+ is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This provides enormous protections for workers who are HIV+.

Under the ADA (which applies to employers who have 15 or more employees) prior to employment, an employer cannot ask questions that are aimed at determining whether an employee has a disability.

Examples of prohibited pre-employment questions are:

· Have you ever been hospitalized?

· Have you ever been on workers’ compensation or disability insurance?

· What medications do you take?

After the employee has been given a conditional offer of employment, an employer may require a physical examination or medical history. The job offer, however, may not be withdrawn unless the results demonstrate that the person cannot perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation (more about reasonable accommodation later). The same inquiries must be made of each person in the same job category. In addition, the physical examination and medical history records must be segregated from the personnel records, and there are strict confidentiality protections. After employment has begun, the ADA permits an employer to only require a physical examination if it is job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Employees who have a disability covered by the ADA, such as HIV, may request from the employer an adjustment of job requirements or workplace policies in order to perform the job duties—this is called requesting a “reasonable accommodation.” Examples include:

· Modifying or changing job responsibilities

· Establishing a part-time or modified work schedule

· Permitting time off for medical appointments

· Reassigning an employee to a vacant job

There is no fixed set of accommodations that an employee may request—it will depend on the employee’s particular circumstances. The employee must make a formal request for an accommodation. The employer is not required to grant the employee’s request if it will create an “undue burden” on the employer. Obtaining a reasonable accommodation is a negotiation between the employee and employer to find a work adjustment that will allow the employee to perform his or her duties. An employer does not have to retain or hire an employee who cannot perform the essential functions of the job even with a reasonable accommodation.

In addition to the ADA, many states have added protections for persons with disabilities.. If you are HIV+ or have another disability covered by the ADA and live in New England, please contact GLAD’s Legal InfoLine at 800-455-GLAD (4523) to obtain detailed information about your rights under both the ADA and state law.

Listen to our podcast on the landmark case Bragdon v. Abbott, including interviews with Abbott and Klein.