Suing New York, Again and Again, for Transgender Rights


Mariah Lopez has been suing New York for transgender rights since she was a child.

In 1999, at age 13, she was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit accusing gay and lesbian children in foster care of routine abuse and emotional abuse.

At 17, she won the right to wear skirts and dresses in an all-male group home. At age 20, she sued to force the city to pay for her gender-affirming surgery; although she ultimately lost, the city soon began to cover such operations.

Ms. Lopez’s latest resolved case against the city has resulted in a sweeping settlement for transgender New Yorkers who are homeless and have long complained of harassment, discrimination and sexual and physical abuse at homeless shelters from the city.

By the end of this year, the city must open at least four dedicated shelters, or units within shelters, for transgender people. It must also put in place a host of anti-discrimination measures, including mandating anti-discrimination training for workers and reviewing how it responds to complaints of abuse.

Ms Lopez, a high school dropout, wrote statements by hand, without a lawyer, while crashing on friends’ floors and doing tricks to survive.

“Let me paint this picture,” Ms. Lopez, 37, said of the homeless shelter case, which included proceedings in federal court and the state Supreme Court and went to court. ended last November. “With my little clickable pen, and a dog, and barely slept because I was stressed, and a phone that barely worked to check the law, I filed an anti-chicken petition and it brought me to front a judge of the Supreme Court. ”

The settlement comes amid a surge in the number of young people identifying as transgender and growing awareness of the barriers transgender people face. National studies have shown that transgender people are much more likely to be homeless or in insecure housing.

Ronald E. Richter, who served as the city’s deputy commissioner of children’s services administration while Ms. Lopez sued the agency, said that when she first came on the scene, “our system had absolutely no understanding of young people who struggled with being transgender and no appreciation for what it meant to be born gender-biased.

He said Ms Lopez had always understood “that making people uncomfortable was an essential part of moving the dial”.

“She made a difference for the young people who came after her,” he added.

Ms Lopez’s life and her voluminous court record – she has filed at least 14 lawsuits against government agencies – reads like the story of a group’s struggle for acceptance.

She’s also been arrested more times than she can count, often for sex work or for breaking the loosely worded and now repealed anti-loitering law sometimes referred to as “transwalking.” Along the way, she alienated quite a few other activists.

“I will not work with her,” said Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder of GLITS – Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society. “I find her problematic, disrespectful and not becoming a black trans leader in the community.”

David France, a filmmaker Ms Lopez sued over a documentary he was making, said he admired her for her ability to harness her personal battles to bring about real change. “It has ways to turn into really impactful and forward-looking litigation,” he said.

Born and raised in the Amsterdam Houses, a public housing complex on the Upper West Side, Ms Lopez entered foster care aged 9 after losing her drug-addicted mother to AIDS, then her granddaughter. -mother.

She spent much of her teenage years running from group homes where, among other incidents, she was thrown down a flight of stairs and had her nose broken, according to the 1999 trial.

She fled to “Transy House,” a Brooklyn brownstone presided over by transgender icon Sylvia Rivera. She initiated her own transition, buying hormones on the street and injecting silicone into her hips and thighs.

At age 16, according to court documents, after being kicked out of two homes for gay and transgender youth for misconduct, Ms Lopez was placed in a boys’ home in Brooklyn, whose director released a memo saying she couldn’t “wear ‘women’s attire’ in the facility. The Children’s Services Administration backed him up.

“I was like, ‘Didn’t I just sue you?'” Ms Lopez recalled. “Are you going to make me do it again?”

A judge ruled that the city violated New York State human rights law. Ms Lopez was allowed to wear skirts and dresses.

As Ms Lopez neared the age of 21, when she would be released from foster care, she tried to get the city to pay for gender affirmation surgery. A family court judge ruled the surgery medically necessary and ruled in her favor, but the city appealed and won.

Two years later, however, the city passed a policy to fund surgeries for foster kids. Mr Richter, who is now the chief executive of JCCA, a foster care provider, said the change was “a function of Mariah’s advocacy”.

Even as the surgery case was ongoing, Ms. Lopez again sued the city. She sued the police department, claiming that during false arrests for vagrancy, she was assaulted and subjected to groping under the guise of manual “gender checks”.

The city settled for $35,000. Two months later, Ms. Lopez went to Florida and had surgery.

In 2017, Ms. Lopez, after earning her GED and briefly attending college upstate, was living with an aunt in Brooklyn. When the aunt died, Ms Lopez and her service dog, Chica – Ms Lopez suffers from PTSD, anxiety and depression – had nowhere to go.

She applied for a placement through the Department of Homeless Services at the city’s first shelter for LGBTQ people, Marsha’s House, an 81-bed facility that had just opened in the Bronx. The shelter is named after Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender trailblazer. Ms Lopez has revived a transgender rights group founded by Ms Johnson and Ms Rivera, renaming it STARR, for Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform.

Although Mrs. Lopez was accepted into Marsha’s House, her dog was not. So she filed a complaint and a judge ruled in her favour. Ms. Lopez and Chica moved in and things immediately escalated.

According to Ms Lopez’s court documents, staff and security guards at Marsha’s House made sexual advances towards her, demanded to see her genitals, insulted her, intimidated her into having sex and threatened to assault her, then retaliated by filing disciplinary charges after she filed complaints.

Eric Rosenbaum, chief executive of Project Renewal, the nonprofit that runs Marsha’s House for the city, said Project Renewal investigated Ms Lopez’s claims and found no corroboration, adding that the city had asked Project Renewal to tap into some of the new transgender people. – friendly accommodation units.

The city transferred Ms Lopez to a women’s shelter, claiming in court papers that she broke rules, threatened staff and punched a security guard. The women’s shelter had better mental health services and a permanent police presence, the city wrote.

Ms Lopez refused to go, citing fears of reprisals and saying that at a women’s shelter she would have to choose between being harassed or locked up as a transgender woman.

As the court battle dragged on, Ms Lopez gathered evidence that transgender people in the city’s shelter system were being abused. In 2019, she filed another handwritten motion, seeking to certify the case as a class action. “This abuse and neglect is widespread and systemic,” she wrote.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, joined the lawsuit. He interviewed dozens of transgender people about abusive conditions in shelters. Many said they felt so in danger that they were forced to become homeless again.

“We have accumulated really horrible stories of people being kicked out of a shelter, like people have split ends,” said Chinyere Ezie, a lawyer at the center. “People have reported when they put complaints in writing, seeing them rolled up and thrown in the trash.”

The city, which initially fought the case, began settlement talks aimed at what it called “systemic reform.”

The settlement allows shelter patrons to appeal to city attorneys about how shelters respond to their complaints. The city must also report to Ms. Lopez every six months on its progress toward fulfilling the terms of the settlement. He filed his first report on Tuesday.

Ms Lopez also received a payout of “almost six figures”, Ms Ezie said.

“We thank Mariah Lopez for her leadership on this issue,” the Department of Homeless Services said in a statement after the settlement.

On Tuesday, the department said it was “proud of the progress” it had made in complying with the regulations, “from instructing shelter staff to use preferred pronouns and gender markers to create an environment affirmative to the development of an accelerated admissions process”.

Ms. Lopez has filed five other cases since the homeless shelter case, including one seeking reimbursement from the city for her surgery and another against the city of Albany for not letting her take Chica on a bus .

Her most recent lawsuit seeks to block the creation of a beach along the piers in the West Village, a longtime center of black and Hispanic transgender street life that includes the location where Marsha P. Johnson’s body was was removed from the Hudson River in 1992.

Ms Lopez argued that the project’s effect on a historically significant area must first be assessed and said that if the beach was built, transgender people of color would be “replaced with straight cis white bathers”.

Ms. Lopez doesn’t seem to have any intention of slowing down. She remembers the first time she set foot in a law firm, when she was 13 and visited Paul, Weiss, the prestigious firm working pro bono on her first trial. .

“We were in this huge conference room,” she said. Lawyers “had their coats and sleeves rolled up with open law books. And I was like, ‘Oh, I think that’s what I want to do.’



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