A landmark discrimination lawsuit moved forward this month when the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the Hispanic AIDS Forum, a non-profit organization formerly located in Jackson Heights, could sue its former landlord for allegedly unlawful eviction.
The Hispanic AIDS Forum, the leading community outreach center of its kind in New York, had offered education and counseling from the Brunson Building in Jackson Heights for eight years until its lease expired. When Executive Director Heriberto Sanchez Soto called the landlord, Joseph Bruno, to renew, he was informed there was a problem.
Other tenants of the high-rise building had allegedly complained about seeing some of the forum’s transgdendered clients in the “wrong” bathrooms. “‘You have these men who think they are women using the women’s bathrooms,’ the building manager said to me. He said he didn’t want them in the building,” Sanchez Soto said.
He tried to set up a meeting with the building manager and landlord, but to no avail. An eviction notice arrived. The HAF went to housing court and lost. After nine months of searching unsuccessfully for an equally acceptable location in Jackson Heights, the organization moved to Woodside.
Not only is its new rent higher, but its new neighborhood is removed from Jackson Heights, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic among Latinos.
New York, with 9 percent of the country’s Latino population, is home to 30 percent of the nation’s Latino population with HIV. Jackson Heights, which is one of the city’s largest gay communities, is 45 percent Latino and has one of the highest concentrations of Latina transgendered people in the nation.
The HAF eventually called the American Civil Liberties Union and filed a civil suit against the estate of Joseph Bruno in June of 2001, saying that the landlord violated state and local laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex, gender and disability.
“They have lost a bunch of clientele because of the move,” said James Esseks, litigation director of the ACLU AIDS project. “They were in Jackson Heights for a reason. This is one of the reasons that enforcing the civil rights laws is important.”
The HAF is suing for unspecified damages because Sanchez Soto says, “the losses cannot be put in numbers.” In addition to the time, energy and resources required to physically move the organization, there was the disruption to clients during the process.
Today, HAF staff have to work much harder on outreach, offering bus tokens for those who live outside the area.
After a considerable amount of legal wrangling, the suit is finally moving forward, and is expected to be heard in court next year.
As part of their strategy, the landlord’s attorneys, Risi and Association, demanded information about each client’s identity and physical gender, but that request was denied in January by Judge Marilyn Shafter. “The status of a transgendered individual is not dependent on their anatomy,” she wrote.
Attempts to reach Bruno’s estate or its lawyers for comment were unsuccessful.
In the new ruling, Judge Shafter dismissed the defendants’ suggestion that state and city human rights laws do not apply to transgendered people, saying, “Defendants’ counsel’s difficulty grasping the concept of transgendered persons as expressed in his affirmation is irrelevant,” she wrote. “Plaintiff has met its pleading burden.”
The New York City human rights law was amended in 2002 to include gender identity, but the state does not have a separate statement for gender identity. Other cases have used the state’s sex discrimination laws to protect transgendered individuals, but some activists argue the law needs to include these people explicitly. There is no federal protection for gender identity discrimination.
“It sends a very strong message to other would-be violators of the law, that there are some of us out there willing to take a stand and see it through,” Sanchez Soto said. “It is not as easy as it was the day before to discriminate.”