Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Bridge Too Far for NJ's Transgender Population... For Now

Attention on New Jersey's traffic problems kept another story largely out of the headlines, but for the state's transgender population, its effects will last a lot longer than four days.
Trans* Equality advocate Stephanie Battaglino (R) with
her partner Mari (C) and  Orange is the New Black star
Laverne Cox (L) at the annual Women's Event
at NYC's LGBT Community Center in Nov. 2013
On January 13th, Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have allowed transgender or intersex folks to change the gender on their birth certificates without having to first undergo gender reassignment surgery.  The bill (A4097/S2786) passed in both houses of the New Jersey legislature, but not with enough votes to override the Governor's veto, which stated in part that the bill as proposed would lead to "significant legal uncertainties and create opportunities for fraud, deception, and abuse."

For the state's LGBT activists, it looked clear that the veto was actually about a matter unrelated to those who would be affected. Babs Casbar Siperstein, political director for the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey, called it "Arbitrary, capricious and designed to harm transgender people who are the most vulnerable among LGBT New Jerseyans."  Troy Stevenson of Garden State Equality asserted that it was "a vindictive move to punish the LGBT community after a year of tremendous progress."  And -- politics being what they are -- it is in fact hard to ignore the fact that a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill is Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.  A longtime champion of the LGBT community, she also happens to be co-chairing the bicameral committee investigating another act of obstruction which has gotten far more news coverage than this one.

On the flip side, Christie -- who also vetoed a bicameral marriage equality bill in 2012, only to have the state's highest court rule it into being this fall -- did approve a law making New Jersey only the second state to ban "reparative therapy" for minors.  These forms of treatment and counseling, which purport to change "unwanted" same-gender attraction, have been condemned by the American Psychological Association and other professional groups as misleading at best, irreparably harmful at worst.  

The transgender bill's Assembly co-sponsor Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) saw reason for hope even in the fact of rejection. "Gov. Christie's veto suggests that with safeguards he would have signed this legislation," she told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I plan to work with my colleagues and the Governor's office to get this legislation done during the next session."

But in the meantime, there is still rejection which -- political speculation aside -- feels very personal.  Stephanie Battaglino, an insurance executive who also does public advocacy work for trans* workplace rights, expressed her reactions on her blog:
"Caught in the cross hairs once again. First it was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) back in 2007 when we were summarily stripped out of the bill as a protected class in an effort to make it more – you should pardon the expression – passable. And now in my own backyard – this veto. Do people think we somehow like it underneath the proverbial bus that we always seem to get thrown under? Or is it perhaps that we are too easy a target? 'Need a punching bag? Roll out the transgender community, nobody cares about them anyway. They’re just a bunch of wackos on the lunatic fringe.'"
Stephanie is also an Episcopalian, one of our own, and has shared her own faith journey from the pulpit and other speaking engagements.  She articulated how important a milestone getting her own revised certificate was, which helps explain why the bill's failing was so wounding:
"I can assure you that to many of us in the trans community, an amended birth certificate is by no means merely a piece of paper. It is so much more than that. It is a panacea for many. I can remember when I received mine in the mail a few months after my surgery. It meant everything to me to see my mother and father’s name, the hospital in Newark where I was born that is no longer there, the date and time of my birth – and most importantly my full female name. It is more than an understatement to say it was completing. I remember thinking to myself through my tears of joy, 'this is the way it was always supposed to be – and now it is.' To deny someone of that feeling of completeness because of a perceived lack of 'appropriate safeguards' is at best totally lacking in compassion, and at its worst, inhumane."
To Stephanie, the best way to help society continue to evolve is by getting out there and letting them experience her as a human being, rather than an issue or a condition:
"I often say in my speaking engagements 'just give me five minutes' and you’ll come away with a much different perspective about transgender people. To briefly paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, if you must judge at all, than work with me to create a forum whereby I can be judged on the content of my character – the content of my 'human-ness.'"
Integrity seeks to foster this dialogue and education whenever and wherever possible.  The Institute for Welcoming Resources, of which Integrity is a coalition partner, offers TransAction, a curriculum for congregations better understand and welcome transgender people to be a part of their community.  Stephanie and others share a ministry of engaging people in conversation about these topics. If your congregation or group is interested in hosting an enlightening event, please contact us.

Christian Paolino is the Chair of Integrity's Stakeholders' Council

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