State cracks down on transgender discrimination

Michael Rispoli for Gannett State Bureau reports on Courier News Online.TRENTON — When Jillian T. Weiss made the change from male to female in 1998, she found it hard to get a job as a lawyer.

“People were unwilling to have me work with them when they could tell when I was transitioning,” she said.

Only able to get a job as a legal secretary, Weiss had to “go back” and work her way up. After getting a doctorate degree, Weiss now is an assistant professor of law and society at Ramapo College. Weiss says how she expresses her gender is not a factor with her students and coworkers.

Weiss said her experience beginning nearly a decade ago is similar to what many transgender people deal with in the work force. The state, however, is looking to end this type of workplace discrimination. Beginning today, New Jersey becomes the ninth state to explicitly prohibit transgender discrimination. The change to the state’s Law Against Discrimination adds “gender identity and expression” to the list of categories already protected against discrimination involving employment, along with public accommodation, contracts, housing, credit and union membership.

“What this is going to do is provide a push in for people so they can start to get jobs,” said Weiss, who holds workshops with corporations and small businesses to teach workplace diversity. “Even though there will continue to be unemployment, they will find that it is going to relieve some of the frustrations they have that they can’t get jobs at all.”

New Jersey’s law was signed in December but didn’t take effect for 180 days. It was enacted with wide support in the Legislature, 69-5 with six abstentions in the Assembly, and 31-5 and 33-3 in its two votes in the Senate.

Several other states give transgender people certain protections under sex or disability discriminations laws, and four more states — Colorado, Iowa, Oregon and Vermont — have transgender anti-discrimination laws coming into effect this year.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Morganville, one of the law’s primary sponsors. “We’re all human beings, and I just thought we should give them the rights they deserved.”

Barbara Casbar Siperstein, director of Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey, said making the law “black and white” presents an opportunity to educate people and make them think.

“One of the things I think that we all want, as people, is respect,” Casbar Siperstein said.

Violators could face stiff penalties. The law allows for a pre-trial investigation done by the state Division on Civil Rights or a civil court hearing, and anything from a cease and desist order to compensation for the harmed party could be issued. Fines could also be handed out, from $10,000 for a first offense to $50,000 for multiple offenses.

The current expansion adds to the oldest civil rights statute in the country, which was passed in 1945, said Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director at the state Division on Civil Rights.

The original law prohibited discrimination of race, nationality and ethnicity in employment, but was sparsely enforced. The section in the state Constitution outlawing discrimination in education and military service was the first to explicitly state such a ban when it was drafted in 1947.

The new amendment to the law had its beginnings in a 2001 appellate court decision known as Enriquez v. West Jersey Health Systems. The court found the refusal to rehire a doctor who was in the process of going from male to female violated the sexual discrimination law. The amendment codifies existing rulings, Vespa-Papaleo said.

Vespa-Papaleo added that along with being the oldest, the state’s civil rights law is among the broadest in the country.

“New Jersey has a very bold and generally positive outlook on protecting the rights of the people in our community regardless of their background,” Vespa-Papaleo said.