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Forced to act, governor moves to extend protections to transgender individuals

The governor has stepped in to protect the rights of the state’s transgender community after the State Senate failed for years to do so. Good for him.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has become adept at exercising executive power to the benefit of groups of people, in this case transgender individuals, people who do not identify with their birth gender.

These individuals were vulnerable to discrimination in ways that should be unimaginable in today’s society. It simply would not be acceptable, much less legal, to treat someone unfairly based on skin color, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Yet, transgender individuals did not enjoy those protections, leaving them subject to discrimination by public and private employers, businesses and providers of housing and credit.

Nearly 20 states have adopted protections for transgender individuals. Recently the City of Buffalo strengthened its anti-discrimination law for all protected classes, including transgender people. Rochester, Syracuse and New York already had protections in place. The governor’s move enables uniform protections across the whole state.

Legislation designed to protect transgender individuals has gone nowhere. The Assembly passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) eight times; the Senate failed to even take up the measure.

Faced with this weakness in protections for all New Yorkers, Cuomo announced that he had directed the state’s Division of Human Rights to issue a regulation that would interpret the existing anti-discrimination law to prohibit discrimination against transgender people.

Carrying essentially the same protections as GENDA, this action requires no legislative approval and, according to officials, has the distinction of making New York the first state to take executive action to add transgender protections under law.

The potential problem with this procedure is that a subsequent administration could undo the protections. For that reason, the State Senate should drop its opposition and pass GENDA. The governor’s action may make it easier for the State Senate to act, now that passing the law will merely be codifying an existing regulation.

The state’s Human Rights Commission and the State Attorney General’s Office will enforce the regulation, which will take effect in December after a comment period.

Reluctance to enact this legislation made little sense in modern society. Same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide, gay and transgender issues are part of the media fabric and now, thankfully, fewer people will be the targets of someone else’s repressive notion of civility.

The new regulation will not change the attitudes of people hostile to transgender rights. But thanks to Cuomo, victims of such discrimination have a means of redress.