Andrew Cuomo Bans Transgender Discrimination—and Burnishes Liberal Cred

Andrew Cuomo again circumvented the State Legislature in order to advance a liberal initiative—this time, transgender rights.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2015 New York City Gay Pride Parade (Photo: Neilson Barnard for Getty Images)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2015 New York City Gay Pride Parade. (Photo: Neilson Barnard for Getty Images) Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo tonight announced he would unilaterally expand existing anti-discrimination statutes to include transgender persons—the third time this year the governor has bypassed the State Legislature to advance a liberal cause.

The Democratic governor officially announced at the annual dinner of gay rights group Empire State Pride Agenda that his office would now interpret a state law protecting people from the denial of private sector services on the basis of their sex as applying to transgender persons. The governor recalled how the 2002 Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act deliberately excluded transgender persons from its protections for fear it would poison the bill’s chances of passage, and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act—which would have extended those legal shields to individuals who do not conform to prevailing sexual identification norms—has passed the Assembly eight times, but State Senate leadership prevented it from coming up for a vote.

“SONDA was flawed,” Mr. Cuomo said. “The law protected lesbians, gays and bisexuals, but it left out the ‘T,’ so to speak. It left behind the transgendered.”

“That was not right, it was not fair and it was not legal,” Mr. Cuomo continued.

The governor noted that transgender people are more likely to be the victims of violence and harassment than other sexual minorities. Mr. Cuomo also explained that the State Division of Human Rights—an office he controls—has the power to construe anti-discrimination statutes in the way it sees fit, and that state law has long forbidden discrimination based on sex.

“As governor of New York, it is my opinion that in 2015, it is clear that the fair, legal interpretation and definition of a person’s sex includes gender identity and gender expression,” he said. “Therefore, I am directing the State Division of Human Rights to immediately issue regulations defining New York State’s discrimination law to prohibit discrimination against trans individuals.”

Mr. Cuomo’s remarks earned him two successive standing ovations, and plaudits from Empire State Pride Agenda leaders.

“I think it’s a tremendous step forward for full equality for LGBT people,” Nathan Schaefer, the group’s executive director, told the Observer. “It is a creative solution to extend those basic civil rights across the state of New York.”

The move marks the latest in a series of policy changes in which the governor—whose fiscal conservatism and ties to business interests have long left progressives in his party disenchanted—has circumvented the legislative process in order to take the state in a more left-leaning direction.

In June, Mr. Cuomo signed an executive order granting Attorney General Eric Schneiderman jurisdiction over cases where a police officer kills a civilian who may have been unarmed, after the State Senate failed to support his proposals for an independent monitor to investigate such situations. And in July, he impaneled a wage board which instated a new pay floor for the fast food industry, ahead of his declared push in the legislature for a $15 minimum wage for all sectors in the state.

Passing gay marriage was a flagship issue of Mr. Cuomo’s 2010 campaign, and it cleared the State Senate the following year over considerable opposition from upstate Republicans. The Marriage Equality Act had passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly two years earlier, but the State Senate voted it down.

Andrew Cuomo Bans Transgender Discrimination—and Burnishes Liberal Cred