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Transgender woman suffers from disability, Brooklyn judge rules

December 12, 2013 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A transgender woman who alleged discrimination at a residential drug rehabilitation may proceed with her suit, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Debra Silber ruled.

Sabrina Wilson, a male-to-female transgender woman, fled Phoenix House, a drug detoxification and rehabilitation center with facilities located throughout New York, including three in Brooklyn, after being denied the ability to fully express her female identity.  

Wilson, 32, was arrested in 2008 on a drug offense and agreed to enroll in a drug rehab center in lieu of prison. Having been diagnosed with gender identity disorder when she was 16, Wilson had struggled with her identity for years and had yet to make the physical transformation from male to female.

Upon arriving at Phoenix House, Wilson made it clear to Phoenix House staff that while she is biologically male, she identifies with the female gender. Notwithstanding her gender identification, Wilson was required to use the male restrooms and sit with the male population during group sessions, and was told to remove her wigs, makeup and high heels despite the fact that biological women wear able to don such attire.

Wilson asserted that a counselor advised her that “”[w]e can’t suit your needs as a transgender in our program,” and a program that did “meet her needs”  was not located by Phoenix House. Wilson subsequently fled Phoenix House and was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.

While legal milestones have been achieved for the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, “with regard to transgendered and other gender nonconforming people, there has been far less progress in addressing their legal rights,” Justice Debra Silber wrote in her 46-page ruling in the Wilson case.  

The term transgender is “applied to people who dress or act in a manner that is different or opposite from what is considered “normal’ for their birth-gender,” Silber noted. For decades, transgendered individuals were deemed to have made a choice of gender. As their identity is born of choice rather than nature, the argument followed, that choice did not allow them the strict protections of anti-discrimination laws.

Higher levels of protection are generally granted to those who are discriminated against for aspects out of their control, such as race and birth gender but, as Silber deduced, gender discrimination has been defined by past case law as discrimination against an individual for failing to “conform to stereotypical gender norms.”

Therefore, as transgender individuals “transgress society’s gender norms in some manner,” Silber said, they should be granted a higher level of protection against discrimination and afforded the court’s protection for “aid or redress.”  

In her suit, Wilson alleged that Phoenix House discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation as well as her disability of gender identification disorder. Wilson initially filed her claim in federal court, where Southern District Court Judge Denise Cote ruled that although Phoenix House is a privately owned and operated institution and thus not immediately subject to the provision of the U.S. Constitution’s promoting equal protection, the fact that there was a  “sufficiently close nexus between [New York state] and Phoenix House such that the [Phoenix House’s] actions constitute `state action,’” and therefore governed by the Constitution, permitted Wilson to continue with her suit.

In an odd turn of events, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, shortly after Cote’s decision, that prisoners serving time in privately owned facilities were barred from bringing suit under anti-discrimination laws, essentially pre-empting Wilson’s federal suit and forcing her to re-file suit in state court under New York state’s Human Rights Law.

Phoenix House proffered the argument that they could not have discriminated against Wilson because Wilson did not suffer from a disability and if, in the alternative, Wilson did possess a disability but it was not made known to Phoenix House. Silber dismissed this argument, stating that “[g]ender Identity Disorder is a disability under both the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law,” and therefore Wilson was afforded the protections of these relevant statutes.

Finding that Wilson’s transgender status places her to the protections against discrimination as a matter of law, Silber allowed Wilson’s suit to proceed for a determination of whether or not Phoenix House had in fact discriminated against Wilson.

Wilson is asking for an “amount no less than $2,000,000.00 to compensate her for ‘…economic loss, loss of rights, as well as for the humiliation, embarrassment and emotional distress suffered’ due to defendants’ [alleged] discriminatory conduct.”

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