A Long Island City woman filed the city’s second transgender discrimination case this year against the New York City agency that handles food stamps and other benefits on Nov. 20.
Jolie Estrella, 25, who wished to keep her born name anonymous, brought an official change of name form in November 2011 to the Human Resources Administration East River Job Center.
The document, issued by the state the previous May, must be brought to the HRA for Estrella to change her name in their database. She also had with her the correct documents needed to change her gender marker, according to her lawyer Richard Saenz, staff attorney with LGBT Advocacy Project at Queens Legal Services. Legal sex designations, also called gender markers, are the M for male and F for female found on many government- issued identification cards.
Without the correct name she could not access government-issued benefits.
“They were bewildered,” Estrella said of her visit. “One of the girls was confused and didn’t know what to do. She went to a supervisor, or a coworker, someone who she respected. He accused me of having fraudulent documents.”
That day she left without accomplishing the task. But she returned at the end of the month to try to change her legal name and legal sex designation on all HRA documents. During this visit she dressed in a sweatsuit.
“I was ready for them to receive me as a man,” Estrella noted.
But she said she received no better treatment. One man said it’s OK if you’re gay, “as long as you aren’t a transgender,” Estrella said.
When she asked to speak to a supervisor, the individual allegedly refused to use her legal name and instead sent her to another location where she was met by HRA security guards who ordered her to leave the building, according to Queens Legal Services. When she refused, a guard allegedly dragged her into an office where she was issued a summons and citation, again in her former name.
The city law department would only say in an email, “We will be reviewing the lawsuit.”
"HRA treats its clients seeking assistance with dignity and respect. Our policies and continual trainings ensure staff members comply with laws that protect transgender and gender non-conforming people from discrimination," an HRA spokeswoman said.
Estrella went without benefits for six months because she could not change her name on her Electronic Benefit Transfer card, a debit-like card used to purchase items with food stamps.
“I had to rely more on friends. It was a little humiliating,” Estrella said. “Food stamps were always enough.”
The lawsuit filed on Nov. 20 states that these alleged actions violate state and city discrimination laws as well as HRA policy No. P-09-22, “Serving Transgender, Transsexual, and Gender Nonconforming Individuals,” which was issued in December 2009 after years of advocacy. Under the directive, staff should ask clients what their preferred names, titles, and gender pronoun are, and it states that not using that information is a form of harassment.
Estrella is seeking that HRA provide effective training to all management, agents and employees on State and City Human Rights Laws, particularly with respect to the rights of transgender people;for HRA to distribute written procedures on the proper treatment of transgender people to all staff and recipients of benefits; and damages as allowed under the laws, Saenz said
Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy andexecutive director of the Queens Pride House, said this sort of story is not unusual.
“It’s more common than you think, but no one knows because no government agency keeps statistics on these sort of cases,” she said. “They’ve never made public statistics on discrimination cases filed against government agencies broken down by how many against the HRA or judges or broken down by benefit [sought when the discrimination was committed.]”
Spokeswoman for the City Commission on Human Rights Betsy Herzog said her agency probably keeps those statistics, but she could not access them because the CHR staff has operated outside of their main office since superstorm Sandy.
In 2002 the City Council passed a bill amending the city’s Human Rights Law to include transgender individuals. The law protects people against discrimination on the basis of gender identity when applying for employment and housing.
“Here we are 10 and half years later and a city agency is still violating the law of the City of New York,” Park said. “This demonstrates the need for education of public, city agencies and judges.”
The Queens Pride House conducts gender sensitivity classes.
In April 2012, an administrative law judge ordered HRA to process Estrella’s Public Assistance application in her legal name and to provide her with retroactive benefits. The city has responded to the case filed on Nov. 20.
In June a transgender woman filed a suit against HRA through Manhattan Legal Services and South Brooklyn Legal Services seeking damages when, as in Estrella’s case, her change of pronoun and name documents were denied.