On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joined the leaders of the cities of San Francisco, Seattle and the governor of Vermont in prohibiting nonessential state travel to North Carolina. The move was a loud declaration of opposition towards North Carolina’s recent anti-antidiscrimination law which uses the basis of religious freedom to prohibit cities from passing ordinances protecting gay and transgender citizens. Widespread criticism came not only from political and business leaders, but also the state’s attorney general, who called it a “national embarrassment.” Despite Cuomo’s laudable disgust with the lunacy of the North Carolina law, the lack of legislation protecting the transgender community in New York State renders Cuomo’s travel ban a useless symbolic gesture.
While the executive order issuing the ban may make for a catchy headline, the actual text of the order reveals an inherent hypocrisy in the state’s treatment of the transgender community. Cuomo’s executive order justifies the travel ban to North Carolina by stating that freedom from discrimination “based on sexual orientation and gender identity is a compelling state sanctioned government interest.” However, New York State lacks protection for transgender people. While it is illegal in New York State to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, it is not illegal to discriminate based on gender identity. This is a serious oversight just in terms of human rights protections for any state that considers progressive values important.
Rather than issue relatively pointless travel bans, Cuomo’s efforts would be better spent on rectifying this ongoing human rights abuse. While it is a nice gesture on Cuomo’s part to condemn North Carolina’s law, by not criminalizing gender identity discrimination in his own state he is turning a blind eye to similar behaviors. It is easy to scoff at another state’s blatant move towards prejudice, but if a transgender person in New York must live in fear of discrimination without legal recourse or protection, then New York State is favoring symbols of change over true progress.
In a sense, Cuomo’s travel ban does what it is intended to do, which is send a message of support to the transgender community. But this call for solidarity ultimately rings empty when New York itself does not offer any protections for members of a group who face serious discrimination in their everyday lives. If Cuomo wants to make a substantive gesture, then he should extend the housing and employment laws that currently protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation to include transgender individuals. Doing so would be a simple matter of exercising the power of his office, since Cuomo also passed sexual orientation protections by executive order. When an official takes the effort to a make a social statement, it is often not genuine. Cuomo should endeavor to be the exception, not just another politician speaking in elevated tones with his fingers crossed behind his back.
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