GLAA testifies on OHR, addresses transphobia at fire/police depts.
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GLAA on Human Rights

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GLAA testifies on OHR, addresses transphobia at fire/police depts.

Fighting for Equal Rights Since 1971
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013


Delivered before the Committee on Government Operations

MARCH 3, 2006

Chairman Orange, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Residents:

My name is Craig Howell. I am a native Washingtonian and a longtime resident of the Dupont Circle neighborhood. I am happy to be here this morning representing the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation’s oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization. We will be celebrating our 35th anniversary with a reception on Thursday evening, April 20, at the Washington Plaza Hotel on Thomas Circle. I am pleased to report that one of your colleagues on this Committee, Councilmember Phil Mendelson, will be among those receiving GLAA’s Distinguished Service Awards at this anniversary reception.

We at GLAA continue to be impressed with the progress shown at the Office of Human Rights under its director, Kenneth L. Saunders. When Mr. Saunders came on board nearly 3 years ago, the number of “aged” cases (i.e., those cases pending at OHR for more than 270 days) stood at nearly 350. Today that number has been cut by more than half, down to about 150 cases. The total number of cases has also declined over the same span and is now about 350. OHR’s enhanced efficiency and productivity may be better appreciated when you consider that the number of new cases being filed has been rising, thanks to OHR’s vigorous educational and outreach efforts, even as the total number of cases has been dropping.

We are gratified that OHR has been able to secure federal funding from HUD to support several new staff positions, including a third hearing examiner for the Commission on Human Rights. We would suggest, however, that more District funds be devoted to OHR. The FY 06 budget only provided for a meager $4,000 increase in DC-appropriated funds, and we would hope that amount will be substantially greater when the Mayor submits his FY 07 budget to the Council later this month. OHR could use extra funds to find expanded work space, especially for the Commission. It should also bring on more staff to facilitate further progress in reducing the number of aged and total cases; we gather that these numbers have plateaued over the last several months. We hope to explore these budgetary matters in more depth during your Committee’s hearings on the proposed FY 07 OHR budget.

Moving on to another front, we are gratified that OHR seems to be moving quickly to implement the Human Rights Act Clarification Act of 2005, explicitly banning discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression,” even in advance of the completion of the bill’s Congressional layover period. For example, OHR has nearly finished revising the anti-discrimination posters that employers, places of public accommodations and others are required to post to incorporate “gender identity or expression” as a protected category, and should soon be available on-line in both English and Spanish. The Mayor’s Order on Uniform Language in Anti-Discrimination Policies is similarly being revised and expanded to reflect the new law. Training for the District government’s EEO counselors will be overhauled to include new sections dealing with the kinds of discrimination problems our transgendered workers and residents typically face; this new training may be Internet-based, a significant step forward in this cyber age. Meanwhile, the Commission is proceeding with drafting regulations for implementing the new law, and OHR is developing a variety of appropriate policies and procedures.

But we believe that much more intensive training on working productively with our transgendered population is badly needed and already overdue in at least two of the District’s public safety agencies: The Metropolitan Police Department and the Fire/EMS Department.

On February 23, a seminar sponsored by OUTfront, a program of Amnesty International, was held here to focus on problems police around the country often have in their treatment of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community. There are stories about this meeting in this week’s issues of both Metro Weekly and Washington Blade. In general, the Metropolitan Police Department came across as one of the best in most respects, thanks to Chief Ramsey’s unwavering commitment to the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU), but with one glaring exception: The continuing abuse of transgendered men and women by too many officers on the street. It was pointed out, for example, that the only police to attend a recent diversity training program offered by a transgender service agency were members of the GLLU. Too often, the police feel free to treat our transgendered residents as nothing more than prostitutes and outlaws. It all reminds me too vividly of how our police department similarly scorned and stereotyped gay men when I began my own gay activist work back in the 70s. It will take much work to uproot transphobia in the MPD, and we must begin soon.

The transphobia in the Fire/EMS Department is even more prevalent and long-standing, dating back at least to its grotesque mishandling of the Tyra Hunter case in August 1995 and for many years thereafter, and aggravated and reaffirmed in the Department’s incredible mistreatment of Kenda Kirby just within the last few years. At this time last year, GLAA complained to this Committee about the Fire/EMS Department’s ill-concealed contempt for transgenders. There has been no visible improvement since then.

A few months ago, your colleague Councilmember David Catania asked Fire Chief Adrian Thompson for a copy of all the materials the Department uses in its Tyra Hunter Human Diversity Training Program. Mr. Catania was kind enough to share his copy of those documents with GLAA. We were frankly shocked that this training includes absolutely nothing about the GLBT community, other than to note that we are protected from discrimination by the DC Human Rights Act. Mr. Catania is not satisfied with this, and neither are we.

The critical need for intensive training of Fire/EMS staff has been brutally emphasized by the public record of OHR’s investigation of Kenda Kirby’s complaint against the Department. OHR ruled against Ms. Kirby because it found that the Fire/EMS Department’s treatment of her did not constitute employment discrimination, a finding that Ms. Kirby is now appealing in court. But whether or not the Department technically violated Ms. Kirby’s rights under DCHRA, the record shows that the Department certainly violated the interests of the entire GLBT community by treating her with such contempt and hostility and by frustrating her efforts to develop a training program that would confront the Department’s deeply-ingrained homophobia and transphobia.

Chief Thompson, while assuring the Council that everything is just great, has shown absolutely no disposition to stand up to the bigots under his command. The Council -- most especially the members of this Committee and the Judiciary Committee -- must let Chief Thompson know that prejudice cannot be allowed to run rampant. In addition, GLAA will be pressing those seeking the office of Mayor to demonstrate their own commitment to addressing and resolving the Fire/EMS Department’s problem firmly and without reservation.

Before concluding, we would like to share with this Committee the results of an analysis which we asked Mr. Saunders to prepare a few months ago, comparing the disposition of employment discrimination cases filed in the private sector with the fate of similar complaints filed against D.C. government agencies. The results, as Mr. Saunders had predicted in advance, show relatively little difference between the public and the private sectors.

Based on an analysis of nearly 550 cases filed in the private sector between FY 2003 and FY 2005 and 84 public sector complaints filed over the same span, public sector complaints were settled only about half as often as private sector complaints (14% vs. 27%). But when they are settled, public sector complainants receive considerably larger amounts on average than their private sector counterparts ($22,000 vs. $15,000).

22% of public sector complaints end up with findings of probable cause by OHR, more than twice the rate registered for private sector complaints (9.3%). These numbers compare with the typical rate of 20-25% of all employment discrimination cases filed around the country that are resolved in favor of the complainant.

GLAA requested this study to test whether OHR, as an agency under the direct control of the Mayor, is biased against those complaining against other District government departments and agencies. OHR’s data do not support such a hypothesis.

But we still suspect that OHR might be better off if it were to become an independent agency, whose head would be appointed by the Mayor for a set term, rather than serving at the pleasure of the incumbent. The Office of the Inspector General might well provide an appropriate model for what we have in mind.

Thank you for your attention. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.

[Notes by Craig Howell: After my testimony, Mr. Orange emphasized his co-sponsorship of the bill that explicitly includes “gender identity or expression” and stated that the MPD and Fire/EMS departments indeed need to get going with this kind of training for the people who need it the most. Mr. Orange specifically asked Mr. Saunders to meet with leaders of both departments to make sure this happens, and said he will stay on top of this matter.]

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