Riled Over Rules

GLBT activists, Schwartz, critical of proposed Human Rights Act changes

In the months-long debate between the District and the transgender community regarding the treatment of gender-variant detainees in District jails, the ongoing dialogue seems to be succeeding best at just digging the trenches deeper.

The latest front in this war of words opened July 11 when the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, a technically independent agency of 15 mayor-appointed and City Council-confirmed commissioners, voted to propose changes to the District’s Human Rights Act. That law, with provisions to protect people based on gender identity, has been the backbone of arguments employed by the DC Trans Coalition in seeking improved treatment for transgender detainees in District jails, following a number of recent complaints from such detainees, involving strip searches, solitary confinement and other issues.

But while the Commission on Human Rights might seem an obvious ally of the transgender community, some of the July 11 proposals have not been welcomed by the DC Trans Coalition. Rather, one of the proposals appears to be worded to protect the Department of Corrections (DOC) from complaints aimed at the DOC’s latest attempt to accommodate concerns about transgender detainees — accommodations that some in the transgender community characterize as regress.

In the section of the human-rights law describing general protections for transgender people, the commission’s proposed addition reads, in part: ”Nothing in this chapter shall require an agency of the District of Columbia to classify, house, or provide access to gender-specific facilities to transgender individuals according to their gender identity or expression if the transgender individual is incarcerated, institutionalized, or otherwise within the District’s custody. A District agency may make reasonable inquiry to determine whether an individual in custody is transgender.”

That language runs counter to aims of the DC Trans Coalition to secure facilities that house transgender detainees based upon their gender expression, along with other considerations, rather than by genitalia, as is currently the case under DOC guidelines.

”Essentially it gives the DOC a free pass on how they address transgender people,” says Jeri Hughes, a member of the DC Trans Coalition, acting independently.

Hughes met July 22 with Gustavo F. Velasquez, director of the Office of Human Rights (OHR), along with Earline Budd of Transgender Health Empowerment; Rick Rosendall of the Washington, D.C., Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance; G.G. Thomas of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, and others

”With all the community bonding together, I think they’re going to get the message,” says Hughes, characterizing Velasquez’s attitude during the meeting as ”accommodating.”

Velasquez did not immediately respond to a Metro Weekly request for comment.

A second proposal, regarding District employees’ name badges, would prohibit employees from changing their names on their badges without a legal change of name. That may seem innocuous, but critics say it may hinder someone in the process of transitioning genders, and that the change would actually be more appropriate to employment guidelines, not human-rights law.

The DC Trans Coalition argues on its Web site: ”It certainly doesn’t protect people’s right to use a name consistent with a person’s gender identity or expression, and the point of these rules is to protect trans and gender-variant people, not to limit our rights.”

Max Toth, a member of the Trans Coalition’s ”leadership team,” says he is optimistic that neither proposal will get far, noting that Councilmember Carol Schwartz (R-At large) opposes the changes.

In a July 23 letter to Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), Schwartz wrote, ”I believe the [DOC] can and should work to ensure that the safety of transgender inmates is as assured as it is for every other inmate, and that it can do so without altering the provisions of the Human Rights Act.”

The Trans Coalition is currently crafting its own testimony and collecting signatures for a related petition, which will be presented to the OHR.

The Human Rights Act allows the Commission on Human Rights and Office of Human Rights to ”make, issue, adopt, promulgate, amend an rescind such rules and procedures as they deem necessary….”

”There’s a 30-day deadline for us to get commentary on these proposed regulations,” Toth says. ”The OHR will then accept them or reject them.”

Visit the D.C. Office of Human Rights Online at http://ohr.dc.gov, or the D.C. Trans Coalition at www.dctranscoalition.org.