Bias in the Bathroom

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A landmark eviction case moved forward this fall when the New York Supreme Court ruled that the Hispanic AIDS Forum (HAF), a local nonprofit, could proceed with a discrimination suit against its former landlord, the estate of Joseph Bruno. What comes next, experts say, could set a precedent for the rights of transgender individuals across the nation.

For nine years, HAF ran a community outreach center in Jackson Heights, offering counseling and education to Latino clients with HIV/AIDS. But in 2000, as the agency was renewing its lease, another tenant in the building allegedly complained about having to share bathrooms with “those men who look like women.” HAF had recently started a small bimonthly support group for transgender clients.

HAF’s executive director, Heriberto Sanchez Soto, says he tried to discuss the matter with the building’s manager, but to no avail. “He wanted us to assure him that they would use gender-appropriate bathrooms,” Sanchez Soto says. “I said that I couldn’t refuse bathrooms to clients based on their genitalia. He said we better do something or he wouldn’t renew the lease.”

When the group was evicted, Sanchez Soto took his case to Housing Court, but lost. HAF was forced to relocate its Queens office to Woodside. But he didn’t stop there. HAF filed a civil suit in 2001, alleging discrimination. Now, after years of legal wrangling, the case is finally moving forward–with the help of some high-profile allies.

“We are hoping this case will make it clear that landlords cannot do what he did,” says James Esseks, litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union AIDS project. “The point is twofold: We are trying to make sure transgender individuals are covered under the law. We are also trying to hold the landlord accountable for his actions and recoup the losses suffered by HAF.”

As part of their strategy, the landlord’s attorneys, Risi and Associates, demanded intimate information about each client’s physical gender, but that request was denied in January by Justice Marilyn Shafter. “The status of a transgendered individual is not dependent upon their anatomy,” she wrote.

Attempts to reach Bruno’s estate or its lawyers for comment were unsuccessful.

In the new ruling, Judge Shafter dismissed the defendants’ suggestion that state and city human rights laws do not apply specifically to transgender people. “Defendants’ counsel’s difficulty grasping the concept of transgendered persons as expressed in his affirmations is irrelevant,” she wrote. “Plaintiff has met its pleading burden.”

The case will now go into its discovery phase, during which both sides will hear testimony and gather facts; it should proceed to trial in about a year. Sanchez Soto hopes the case will raise awareness, and encourage the creation of unisex bathrooms. “It’s a matter of socializing people to these things,” he says. “Sometimes we have to force open-mindedness.”