Latino AIDS Agency Evicted Because Transgender Clients Used 'Wrong' Bathroom, ACLU Charges in NY Lawsuit
NEW YORK -- The leading Latino HIV/AIDS agency in New York was effectively forced out of Jackson Heights, Queens - an epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in U.S. Latino communities - because of prejudice against the agency's transgendered clients, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit filed today.
The Hispanic AIDS Forum was forced to leave Jackson Heights after the landlord at the office building that housed the agency for 10 years acquiesced to complaints from another tenant that the agency's transgendered clients were using the ""wrong"" restrooms. (For example, people who identified and expressed themselves as women -- but who were not born anatomically female -- used the women's restroom.) The landlord was unwilling to discuss ways to accommodate the transgendered clients, refused to renew the agency's lease, and began eviction proceedings.
""This is unlawful discrimination - and prejudice with the highest of prices,"" said Tamara Lange, staff attorney at the ACLU AIDS Project. ""This landlord has made it much harder for the Hispanic AIDS Forum to reach the people who need HIV/AIDS services most, and this organization has been forced to pay higher rent and moving costs. That money could have been used to help more Latinos affected by HIV/AIDS.""
Latinos account for 20 percent of all new HIV cases nationwide, even though 12 percent of the population is Latino. New York, with 9 percent of the country's Latino population, is home to fully 30 percent of the entire nation's Latino population with HIV. Jackson Heights -- which is one of New York's largest gay communities, is 45 percent Latino and has one of the largest concentration of Latina transgendered people in the nation -- is home to many Latinos affected by HIV/AIDS.
""This epidemic is ravaging Latinos, and efforts to prevent its spread have to come from within our own communities and reach people where they are,"" said Heriberto Sanchez Soto, Executive Director of the Hispanic AIDS Forum, at a press conference this morning at the agency's cramped city-wide headquarters in Manhattan. ""We can't afford to let prejudice get in the way.""
Today's lawsuit, filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, says the Estate of Joseph Bruno (which owns the building in Jackson Heights), an associated Trust and its Trustees violated state and local laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex, gender and disability. The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages, citing the financial and practical impact the move had on the Hispanic AIDS Forum's ability to reach people badly in need of services.
According to the lawsuit, the landlord told Sanchez Soto that the Hispanic AIDS Forum's lease would not be renewed because of complaints from other tenants over ""men who think they're women using the women's bathrooms."" When asked whether he was referring to the agency's transgendered clients, the lawsuit charges that the landlord replied, ""I don't care what they are. They can't use the wrong restrooms.""
The landlord insisted that the Hispanic AIDS Forum sign a written agreement that none of its clients would use restrooms in the building. When the agency refused, the landlord began eviction proceedings and the agency eventually moved to Woodside, Queens, which is less central to Latino, gay and transgender communities.
While the agency didn't have an automatic right to renew its lease, landlords are barred from denying space or services based on several protected criteria, including sex, gender and disability, Lange said. ""We're aware that this question about bathrooms is socially complicated, but there are many ways to accommodate transgendered people without infringing on others,"" she explained. ""What you can't do is just get rid of a tenant without ever trying to make an accommodation, which is what this landlord did. The first step should have been education and dialogue -- not eviction.""
Also at this morning's press conference, activists who for years have tried to amend New York City's anti-discrimination ordinance to explicitly include transgendered people said today's lawsuit illustrates the need for clearer laws. Much of the debate over the expanded legislation has centered on whether it's necessary, with opponents of the new legislation arguing that sex discrimination laws already protect people based on gender identity.
Whether or not transgendered people are already covered under sex discrimination laws, activists said today, a more explicit local ordinance might have prevented the eviction from happening since a law which explicitly included protections for transgendered people might have told the landlord and its lawyers that the eviction would be illegal.
Today's case is Hispanic AIDS Forum v. Estate of Joseph Bruno.
About the Hispanic AIDS Forum
The Hispanic AIDS Forum provides treatment, education and innovative prevention services to New York City's Latino population. The agency's mission is to reduce HIV transmission and to secure timely and quality support services for Latina/os affected by HIV/AIDS. The Hispanic AIDS Forum operates three community-based offices in some of New York's largest Latino neighborhoods: Western Queens, Lower Manhattan and the South Bronx.
About the ACLU AIDS Project
Since the first days of the AIDS epidemic, the ACLU has fought for the civil liberties of people affected by the disease. This includes discrimination, as well as confidentiality in testing, reporting and treatment. Last month, the ACLU AIDS Project secured a new legal precedent protecting emergency health care workers from forced testing and from discrimination stemming from undue fear of transmission on the job.
Statement of Heriberto Sanchez Soto
Executive Director, Hispanic AIDS Forum
June 26, 2001
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us today as we take this extraordinary step to seek justice.
HIV/AIDS represents a great challenge to the Latino community. Nationally we represent 11 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 18 percent of the AIDS cases reported to date. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cumulative total of Latinos diagnosed with AIDS is over 131, 698. The cumulative total of deaths of all Latinas/os with AIDS (through December 1999) is 74,396, or 56 percent of the total Latino AIDS cases.
In New York City these statistics become grimmer. While accounting for 24 percent of New York's population, Latinos represent a disproportionate 31percent of the total cumulative adult and adolescent AIDS cases (35, 557 of 115, 269). In the Borough of Queens, the majority of Latinos living with AIDS are concentrated in West Queens, with Jackson Heights as the epicenter of the disease among this population. West Queens has become an area that has attracted many new immigrants from throughout Latin America.
Some of us will argue that the problem is made worse when bias and prejudice distract us from providing services to the populations most in need. For Latinos in New York and nationally, class issues, race and lifestyles are certainly at the core of the problem.
Case in point, the Hispanic AIDS Forum is seeking legal remedy to blatant discrimination based on gender.
Having evicted HAF from its offices at the Brunson Building in Queens, the Estate of Joseph Bruno makes it clear that existing laws in New York City make it all too easy for landlords to discriminate against those whose physical and emotional make-up does not fit their criteria of what is traditionally acceptable.
In doing so, the Estate of Joseph Bruno has diminished HAF's ability to provide uninterrupted services to many Latinos who turn to HAF for advocacy, daily support and assistance in coping with the emotional, physical and social ravages of HIV/AIDS.
They have also had a significantly negative effect upon the transgender community, reinforcing the basest of social stigma, denying them of their most basic human needs and requirements, and shaming them for being who they are.
The Hispanic AIDS Forum recognizes that it cannot meet its mission without vigilance to protecting human and civil rights. HIV and AIDS has been more than a medical problem. Bigotry, discrimination, prejudice has made our struggle against the spread HIV a daunting challenge. With this action today HAF reinforces its commitment to fight prejudice and bigotry at all levels. We will not relent until we overcome. Thank you.