Editor’s Note: This is a guest editorial submitted by Reed Steberger, District 4 candidate for Tompkins County Legislature. It was not written by the Ithaca Voice. Submit guest columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week, Donald Trump announced that he doesn’t want transgender people serving in any capacity in the military. For myself, and many others who are trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming, serving in the military isn’t at the top of our list of priorities. Many of us would rather see the military budget spent on human services: Inclusion should look like access to jobs, housing, healthcare and other basic human needs. Nevertheless, when the president targets us, every trans and gender nonconforming person, regardless of military status, is dehumanized and made even more vulnerable to the violence we navigate every day.
But this isn’t a plot twist for the Trump Administration. It’s exactly what we should expect, another swing in the ongoing assault on the dignity, well being and fundamental rights that we, our neighbors, our friends, and our colleagues deserve. Today it was the transgender, non-binary and gender nonconforming community. Yesterday, it was immigrants. Before that Muslims. Before that millions that depend on Planned Parenthood. So how do we start acting like we expect this and stop the cycle of shock and despair that keeps us immobilized?
Fortunately, within the scope of the county government, there are two big opportunities to move proactively and progressively to protect our community and break out of playing defense.
First, Tompkins County has a New York State Constitutional Right to pass an anti-discrimination law creating a Fair Hearing Board which would handle human rights complaints related to jobs, housing, and discrimination in places of public accommodation on the basis of all federal and state protected classes, as well as additional local protections.
So why does a county level law matter? Aren’t state and federal laws enough?
In fact, until 2008, the State Division of Human Rights had an agreement with the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights to enforce the State’ Human Rights Law. But, when the agreement between the county and state expired, the number of human rights complaints dropped annually from around forty to almost twenty. That change wasn’t because discrimination stopped overnight, but because resolving human rights complaints through the state can take years, during which time complainants can lose their jobs, homes, and experience escalated violence. When you experience those conditions, a multi-year legal fight doesn’t always seem worth it.
A county law matters, and it’s more important than ever under the administration of Donald Trump.
The second opportunity comes in the form of four major upcoming Tompkins County administrative vacancies: Director of the Department of Social Services, Tompkins County Planning Commissioner, Tompkins County Administrator, and the Director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. For each of these positions, it is essential that our community publically calls for cultural competency, experience working with diverse communities, and a professional track record of working in human rights as core qualifications in hiring for these essential county positions. These qualifications have equal importance to technical job skills; viewing them as secondary is not a mistake our community can afford to make.
It’s time for Tompkins County to live “Diversity through Inclusion” — the county motto for hiring. In other words, to make equity, inclusion and diversity a core value in every decision we make. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck on the defensive, in a constant barrage of attacks from a federal government that cares little for our community members who are the most marginalized.