Victory in Tyra Hunter case 12/11/98
Discrimination by Emergency Caregivers (from GLAA's Agenda: 1998)
Learning the Lessons of the Tyra Hunter Case (from GLAA's Agenda: 1996)
GLOV Report Targets DC Fire Chief (8/28/96)
Testimony for Oversight Hearings
on the D.C. Fire Department
and the Office of the Corporation Counsel
Committee on the Judiciary
FEBRUARY 9, 1999
My name is Craig Howell. I am President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization in the country. (We are preparing to celebrate our 28th anniversary at the Charles Sumner School on Thursday evening, April 22; we hope you will be able to join us for the occasion.) With me today is Rick Rosendall, my immediate predecessor as GLAA President, who now serves as our Public Safety Coordinator. We appreciate this opportunity to testify in these oversight hearings for the Fire Department and the Office of the Corporation Counsel.
From our perspective, it is very appropriate that these two agencies are being considered together today. Both agencies are intricately involved with the events surrounding and subsequent to the tragic death of a transgendered D.C. resident, Tyra Hunter, in August 1995.
D.C. Fire Department
The basic facts of Tyra Hunterís death are, I am confident, well known by now. She was severely injured in an auto collision. When personnel from the D.C. Fire Department arrived on the scene, one of the rescue workers was taken aback upon discovering that Tyra Hunter was physically a man even though she appeared to be a woman. This employee suspended further assistance to Tyra for several minutes before resuming. Tyra was taken to D.C. General Hospital, where she died later that evening.
When news of this incident became generally known, there was an uproar from the gay, lesbian, and transgendered community of Washington. The Departmentís subsequent investigation was, in the eyes of most of us, little more than a glorified cover-up. The Department seemed to be guided more by a ďcircle-the-wagonsĒ mentality than by a sincere desire to identify the responsible parties. Despairing of ever being able to establish the truth by relying on routine bureaucratic procedures, Tyraís mother, Margie Hunter, sued the District government for $10 million.
All the while, our community was demanding that the Fire Department institute comprehensive community relations training for all its personnel, so that they might be sensitized on how they should be dealing with gay, lesbian, and transgendered residents in a variety of contexts.
It has taken a long time, but I am pleased to learn that this training for all D.C. Fire Department employees was in fact completed this last November. We can all hope that it will be effective in preventing further incidents of blatant transphobia or homophobia. If there are further such incidents, we will demand a much better performance from the Departmentís top leadership than we ever got in connection with the Tyra Hunter case investigation.
Before moving on, I would like to compliment the Fire Department for ending its participation in the so-called ďzero toleranceĒ campaign (which we dubbed ďzero intelligenceĒ) spearheaded by DCRA against a number of gay businesses in 1997. At that time, the Department was singling out several gay bars and other establishments for increased inspections, often at illegal times, as an excuse to close those businesses down for minor technical violations. When I personally witnessed one such incident, the Department promised a thorough investigation but instead wound up indulging in a blatant cover-up. After GLAA coordinated a massive public outcry against this and other regulatory abuses, that pattern of harassment dissipated, and we have heard of no similar complaints against the Fire Department or other regulatory agencies for quite some time.
Office of the Corporation Counsel
Relations between the Office of the Corporation Counsel and the Districtís gay and lesbian community have often been quite strained in the 1990ís because of a series of attacks from that office on the viability of the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977, one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the nation. The attacks began under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly when the Corporation Counselís office used extremely homophobic arguments, including Biblical citations that would have made Pat Robertson proud, in their briefs against a suit seeking to legalize same-sex marriages. The Corporation Counselís office also began claiming at this time that the District government itself was exempt from its own Human Rights Law. They made the same outrageous claim in several other gay- and lesbian-related lawsuits against the city.
That same claim was resurrected in defending the District government from Margie Hunterís suit. The Corporation Counselís office also argued that whoever in the Fire Department uttered some scurrilous transphobic remarks upon discovering Tyra Hunter was a transsexual had a First Amendment right to do so.
Luckily, we in GLAA had just had a meeting with the new Corporation Counsel, former Judge John Ferren, in December 1997, just before the offending briefs were filed in the Margie Hunter suit. We had raised our objections to the arguments his office had raised in other actions before his arrival, and he promised us that he would personally take a long look at any such claims before they were officially advanced in his name. When those same arguments popped up in the Hunter briefs, Mr. Rosendall personally contacted Judge Ferren and asked him to reconsider those arguments. Mr. Rosendallís arguments bore fruit, as Judge Ferren filed formal motions with the court, conceding first, that the Fire Department was indeed a place of public accommodations and therefore not exempt from the scope of the Human Rights Law , and second that no D.C. government employee has a First Amendment right to make scurrilous and discriminatory remarks in performing his or her public duties.
But this new-found commitment in the Corporation Counselís office to the spirit of the Human Rights Act has not survived. During the trial, the Districtís attorneys seriously argued that Tyra Hunter must have been used to being called ugly names and therefore could not have minded anything said by Fire Department staff. They also claimed that the D.C. Human Rights Law does not allow anyone who wants to pursue a complaint of discrimination against any branch of the D.C. government to pursue their case in court; instead, they must go to the Office of Human Rights first.
As one whose gay activism dates back to the 1973 passage of Title 34, the immediate predecessor of the Human Rights Act of 1977, I can confidently say that I have never heard this preposterous argument advanced before. Apparently the judge agreed with me and ruled against the Corporation Counsel on this point.
Besides attempting to override the progressive intentions of the framers of the Districtís comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, the Corporation Counselís theory, if upheld, would impose an even greater burden on the already overburdened Office of Human Rights (OHR). Anyone filing a discrimination complaint today with OHR today can typically expect to wait two years before the severely understaffed agency would be able to hand down a finding of probable cause. And let me remind you that the complaint filed against the Boy Scouts of America in 1994 for their admittedly anti-gay exclusionary policies is still before the Human Rights Commission today, five years later.
We have stated many times before that OHR should be elevated to an independent, Cabinet-level status so that its Director would have sufficient credibility and moral authority to serve as the conscience of the city, even when it means bringing other recalcitrant D.C. government agencies into line. Someone with such authority needs to rein in the Office of the Corporation Counsel today, just as someone should have done the same with the Fire Department at the very outset of the Tyra Hunter case.
Like so many others, we in GLAA were delighted this past December when the jury ruled in favor of Margie Hunter. Mr. Rosendall wrote an eloquent letter to Mayor-elect Anthony Williams and to Judge Ferren, asking them not to appeal the Hunter verdict and to enter into serious settlement negotiations with Margie Hunter, so that the healing process can begin.
Iím going to ask Mr. Rosendall to read the text of that letter; it appears as the final page of our testimony today. Mr. Rosendall.
We regret that Mr. Rosendallís words of reconciliation have been ignored. Instead, the Office of the Corporation Counsel has filed an appeal basically asking the court to nullify everything that has happened in court so far. In its ill-disguised contempt for the jury which, after all, represented a cross-section of the Districtís population this appeal constitutes a slap in the face to all District residents, not just to our gay, lesbian, and transgendered citizens and our families.
Anything this committee can do, publicly or behind the scenes, to help get this office out of its present foot-dragging rut and into serious settlement negotiations with Margie Hunter will be a great service to our city.
Attached to our testimony today is a series of documents that we in GLAA have generated over the past year to demonstrate our commitment to justice in this vital case. [See links below.]
In all fairness, I can not close without complimenting the Corporation Counselís office for their strong defense of home rule principles in the ongoing Barr Amendment case. This fight began last year when Congress forbade the District from counting, much less certifying, the results of the November 1998 Initiative 59, which would decriminalize medical marijuana in certain carefully controlled situations. We agreed with the Corporation Counsel in opposing this latest undemocratic action by the Congress, and we signed on to an amicus brief in the case.
Thank you. We would be glad to answer any questions you may have.
[In the ensuing Q&A session, Councilmember David Catania (R-At Large) stressed that Corporation Counsel John Ferren was supportive of the Human Rights Act. He declared that when transgendered residents of DC filed suit against the Corrections Department because they were not allowed to visit family or friends at Lorton, Judge Ferren quickly wrote to the Lorton authorities and said their restrictions on such visits were illicit. Lorton officials replied that they had already abandoned their restrictions as illegal. We agreed that Judge Ferren had proven his personal commitment on this and other occasions. Nevertheless, we were discouraged that his office was still so unyielding on the Margie Hunter case and was still trying to undermine the Human Rights Act in their arguments.
[When representatives of the Office of the Corporation Counsel testified immediately after GLAA, Chairman Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6) asked them if they had shut the door completely to further settlement negotiations with Margie Hunter. They said the door was still open.]