Guest Blogger

Safer Schools: My First Experience in Legislative Advocacy

Filed By Guest Blogger | May 10, 2013 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: anti-bullying, New Jersey, school bullying, trans* bullying protections, trans* protections

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Barbra Siperstein was the first transgender member appointed and confirmed to the Democratic National Committee, and is currently a member of the DNC Executive Committee and the deputy vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. In addition to being the president of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, she's a published author, small business owner, veteran, and a grandparent.

On April 6, 2013, just about a month ago, at the New York Hilton in front of an audience of over 900 people, I had the pleasure and honor of giving remarks and sharing in the presentation of the Imperial Court of New York's Community Service Award to New Jersey's presumptive Democratic gubernatorial candidate , State Senator Barbara Buono. It was noted that she has been a consistent champion of equality, but one achievement sets Buono apart from the other champions of LGBT equality in the New Jersey legislature: she was the prime sponsor of the very first fully inclusive LGBT legislation, the Safer Schools Act (anti-bullying law) of 2002.

stop_bullying.jpgThe improbable story of how little more than a handful of activists and citizen lobbyists representing the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey (GRAANJ), with no real treasury and representing a small misunderstood minority, worked with sometimes reluctant allies to add transgender-inclusive language to an existing pre-filed piece of legislation is worth telling. I hope that it can be a helpful example to other activists. What is remarkable is the fact that this small core group of people arguably represented the full spectrum of the transgender umbrella whether they considered themselves to be "transgender" or not. They understood the need to articulate in our culture and society that bullying of transgender and gender-variant children is harmful, wrong, and intolerable.

In what trans activist Donna Cartwright describes as "serendipity or fate," she learned about the New Jersey bill after speaking to a New York trans activist friend who was working with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) on the Dignity for All Students Act, New York's anti-bullying bill. This friend mentioned that a similar bill was going into the New Jersey legislature but that it appeared that the New Jersey bill was not transgender-inclusive. Days later, toward the end of January 2002, she attended a convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and visited GLSEN's table in the exhibitor area. She engaged one of the regional leaders, who told her that the legislation had already been introduced in both houses. She also obtained a copy of the bill and confirmed that the language was not transgender-inclusive. She opened the door with the GLSEN folks, who told us about an upcoming meeting of a new North Jersey chapter in the coming week.

One of our members who took a lead was Dr. Emanuel Fineberg. "Manny" was a retired school psychologist who actually had experience with bullying in schools and was articulate on the matter, and became our expert on the need to cover transgender and gender-variant children. Manny and I were able to follow through by attending the meeting of the new North Jersey GLSEN chapter and engaging with their members and leaders. Manny was the expert; I was there to learn and to be supportive.

We engaged GLSEN and asked if we could be part of the coalition of organizations that was advocating for the anti-bullying bill. We were welcomed. At the same time we contacted the national experts in transgender law and were told that to cover trans people the legislation needed to include the term "gender identity and expression." Once we agreed on the legal language we needed, we asked our new allies if they would be able to get the sponsors to change the language in the bill. They certainly seemed sympathetic, but they also appeared reluctant or unsure of a way to do this since the existing non-inclusive language was promoted by their national office.

It became clear that we would have to take the lead on making the needed change ourselves, but we were given assurance that the GLSEN folks would support our efforts to make those changes. It was fortuitous that the primary sponsor of the bill in the Senate was my state senator, Barbara Buono, whom I had met a few times through a local civic organization.

After a week had passed, Dr. Emanuel Fineberg wrote a letter articulating the need to explicitly cover transgender and gender-variant children in the law which we planned on presenting to the sponsors of the bill. At this point I became directly involved. It was a big decision to make -- this issue is close to home, my wife had died only three and a half months before, and I was definitely not ready to be "out" in my local area. I admit, I was chicken, so it was not Barbra but "Barry" who contacted Senator Buono's office with Dr. Fineberg's letter expressing concern about the language of her bill.

Senator Buono's assistant turned out to be an acquaintance and was quite friendly. I told her that Manny was an old family friend who had a direct interest in this from his days working in New York schools and that I was happy to speak with the Senator on his behalf. I later received word that the Senator understood and had no problems with our suggestion, but because the bill was now in the hands of the Senate Health committee, there was nothing she could do at present; however, she would invite us to give our input in front of the committee when the hearings were held.

trans_symbol.gifAt this point just two weeks had passed since we found out about the bill, but our members were stepping up and we were able to move quickly. Wendy Berger, president of the New Jersey Log Cabin Republicans and my first LGBT political mentor, was able to connect with the Republican sponsors of this bipartisan bill as well as some Democrats. Debby Bazarsky, director of GLBT Student Services at Princeton University, facilitated a conference on transgender law on April 11, 2002 on the Princeton campus, co-sponsored by GRAANJ. We invited all the legislative sponsors and all the members of the Assembly and Senate Education Committees to the conference.

John McKeon of Essex County, the primary sponsor in the Assembly, sent his Chief of Staff, Sal Anderton, to the conference. Sal seemed clearly engaged and positively interested in transgender civil rights. He "got it," so to speak, and along with Senator Buono's staff, we were comfortable that sponsors in both chambers would be adding "gender identity and expression" to their respective anti-bullying bills.

For me, besides helping guide the political strategy, there was one more thing I could do directly as "Barry," the local businessman. A member of the Assembly Education Committee represented the district where my business was located. Meeting with the legislator, I told her that this anti-bullying provision for gender-variant children was something that my late wife, a former teacher, was interested in, and that our friend Manny, the retired school psychologist, was an active advocate and GRAANJ's Legislative Director. I also personally gave her a copy of his letter.

We also had sympathetic local allies who wanted to help but seemed reluctant to proactively make the necessary changes that we needed. Their national organization helped write the legislation, they needed a win, and one might reasonably speculate that trying to add transgender language was akin to "rocking the boat," which might compromise the chances of passage. We got that message, so we proactively took our own positive action and engaged on several levels. We -- this small, almost ad hoc, diverse group of advocates working together under our wide trans umbrella -- got the transgender-specific language inserted into the bill, with special assistance from our super activist Terry as well as our stealth financial helper "G."

At the committee hearings, our legislative director was joined by experts from some of the national organizations who spoke in favor of trans inclusion. It passed. The amended legislation later went to a full vote which was 77-0 in the Assembly and 35-0 in the Senate. By the end of the summer, Governor McGreevey signed it into law!

"Barry" was there at the signing and joined in the victory. I was proud that I was able to help, in a small way, make this happen. And I also got a great education: I learned how a small diverse group, when creative, focused, and able to work quickly, could be effective. Our team learned the rules and made them work for us.

Of course, I wanted more: I wanted to be honest, to attend the signing ceremony as Babs -- the real me. Still in shock over my wife's death, I was also beginning to define myself. During that summer I had travelled overseas entirely as Babs. That experience gave me great personal confidence that I could survive and hopefully thrive as the woman I am. I began, albeit slowly, a new relationship. Armed with the advocacy and legislative experience and new confidence, I felt ready for the next step.

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