SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Transgender youth in New York's juvenile detention centers are now allowed to wear whatever uniform they choose, be called by whatever name they want and ask for special housing under a new anti-discrimination policy drawing praise from advocacy groups.
"New York is way ahead of the curve," said Roberta Sklar, a spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "When you have a system like the New York Office of Children and Family Services putting out a clear nondiscrimination policy, it should be seen as a model for similar kinds of agencies all over the country."
The policy went into effect March 17, the day Gov. David Paterson was sworn into office. Last month, Paterson directed all state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere as valid in New York.
Paterson spokesman Errol Cockfield said the policy reflects the state's intent to be "tolerant, responsive and respectful" of gender identity and gender expression issues.
Hawaii and California are among the handful of states that have taken steps to afford specific civil rights protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in foster care and juvenile detention, said Susan Hazeldean, director of the Peter Cicchino Youth Project for the New York City-based Urban Justice Center.
In a 2001 report, the center found that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth routinely experienced discrimination, harassment and violence in New York's juvenile justice system. The state runs 30 juvenile centers, which house about 1,200 residents. OCFS officials estimate there are between 20 and 30 transgender youth in its system.
"What we were concerned about is that LGBT young people are entering these programs facing a lot of hostility and violence, and coming out more traumatized and more damaged than when they went in," Hazeldean said. "We think this policy is going to make a real difference."
Ross Levi, public policy director at Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's largest gay rights organization, also said the OCFS policy was among the most far-reaching in the country.
"OCFS has wisely said these students need an environment that is safe and that helps them reach their full potential," Levi said. "It's absolutely needed. Transgender youth talk about how they were at wits' end just trying to survive in these facilities."
The new policy prohibits staff from asking residents about their sexual orientation or gender identity and says any disclosure must be voluntary. It also directs staff to talk to youth who decide to reveal their gender identity.
"Staff should never just move on; talk about what it means for this youth to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning," the 14-page policy states.
Under the policy, transgender youth may request placement based on gender identity. Those requests will be heard by a special committee composed of behavioral health and medical services experts as well as administrators. OCFS spokesman Ed Borges said the agency's center in Red Hook, in New York City, has housed a number of transgender youth in the past because its staff has earned a reputation for tolerance.
Transgender youth are provided private sleeping quarters and are allowed to shower privately. They are also allowed to shave body parts, use makeup or grow their hair long.
The policy directs staff to learn and use the words gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender in an appropriate context when talking with youth.
While all residents may ask to be called by a preferred first name rather than their legal one, the policy says males who believe they are female must be called "she" and females who believe they are male must be referred to as "he." Staff must use the preferred name and pronoun in any documents they file.
All residents must wear a uniform, but the policy allows transgender youth to wear a uniform of the opposite sex, including underwear of their choice. Each facility must have underwear for both sexes. Borges said OCFS spent about $4,500 to stock its facilities.
Like housing requests, most clothing requests will be referred to the special committee to ensure their legitimacy, he said.
So far, only one housing request has been made, though the youth ended up being sent to an adult jail, Borges said.
The policy shift stemmed from a 2006 lawsuit brought by a 15-year-old who was born male but dressed and identified herself as female. She had been taking prescribed feminizing hormones for nearly three years when she was arrested and placed in an OCFS facility.
In a civil complaint alleging sex and disability discrimination, the girl said OCFS staff took away her hormones and would only call her by her male name. The state paid $25,000 to settle the case and agreed to change its policies.
It developed initial guidelines but found them wanting, said Mishi Faruqee, co-chairwoman of the group that created the new guidelines. The initial guidelines were revised after a new OCFS commissioner was appointed last year, Faruqee said.
The agency will start train its staff about the new guidelines this month, Borges said.