WATERTOWN — The new Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights, Angela Fernandez, made her first visit to Watertown on Wednesday. She held a lengthy closed door session at Jefferson Community College with representatives from the city government, college administration, local clergy, organizers of Pride, and others to discuss New York state’s human rights law and recent changes in the last legislative session.
“I’m traveling around the entire state to number one, speak about the Human Rights Law, which is the oldest anti-discriminatory law in the country, and also to listen and learn and hear from people who may have been victims of discrimination, or who have not but would like to learn about the law,” Ms. Fernandez said after the event.
One of the participants in the discussion, Mark Irwin — who helped organize Watertown’s first Pride event this year — said it was a chance to learn more about the law and get advice on local issues.
“When issues come up, we really need to know how to handle them properly,” he said. “We had some questions for the commissioner on that, she answered some and will get back to us on some others.”
Shortly before the Pride event, a local man posted a Facebook post threatening the LGBTQ community after he heard that a Gay Pride celebration was being held in Watertown. No charges were filed against the man, and Mr. Irwin said they spoke to Ms. Fernandez about what to do in the future.
“We asked about Pride and the Facebook posting, and what would be an actionable type of crime,” Mr. Irwin said. “We had a lot of members within the Pride community that wanted to see an arrest or some kind of prosecution, and so I think we were able to discuss that a little bit.”
Ms. Fernandez addressed the incident, but did not go into specific actions her agency might take.
“We will not tolerate that kind of behavior or those kinds of discussions,” Ms. Fernandez said of the post. “We truly believe that it is really important that we support peace, that all human beings can live in the community.”
After a busy legislative session in Albany where the State Senate and Assembly were both controlled by Democrats, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has already signed several new expansions to the Human Rights Law, and is likely to sign some more. Among the changes is GENDA, or the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which bans discrimination against people for their gender identity or expression, and a new law banning rental discrimination based on source of income.
“(Now) a landlord or a real estate broker cannot discriminate against someone whose sole source of income to pay that rent is, for example, child support, or Section 8,” Ms. Fernandez said. “The law just passed in May, we have received a handful of cases so far, we have not seen any from Watertown yet.”
Ms. Fernandez said as more people learn about the new law, more people will be able to take advantage of it and call on the division’s investigative abilities to insure landlords are not discriminating. There is also a law that Gov. Cuomo has not yet signed that would give the Division back the authority to investigate discrimination in public as well as private schools.
One thing that did not change this year is the fact that the Division does not have authority to investigate police or jails in the state.
“I don’t know of any legislative push to do that,” Ms. Fernandez said. “We are an enforcement agency, so if a law is made, if legislation is made that specifically addresses that, we will of course enforce that.”
Last year the New York Civil Liberties Union brought a suit on behalf of plaintiff DeAnna LeTray, a transgender resident of Watertown who alleged discrimination by city police and sheriff deputies.
The division declined to investigate, claiming it had no jurisdiction over police departments, but NYCLU is claiming that police fall under public accommodations and that jails and correctional facilities fall under the definition of housing — both things that fall under the division’s purview in the existing law. State Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky ruled against Ms. LeTray and the NYCLU is appealing the case.
“I understand it’s still in appeal so I don’t want to speak to the specifics of this case,” Ms. Fernandez said.
Ms. Fernandez said that local attendees had specific questions about local issues as well as the new expansions of the law.
“There were some interesting specifics that came up, one of them was what happens in the context of discrimination in a hospital,” Ms. Fernandez said. “The human rights law protects against that. There were conversations about the support around the Pride event.”
Ms. Fernandez said this was just the beginning, and that residents should know that the Division of Human Rights can help them if they encounter discrimination in one of the covered areas. Residents can visit the Syracuse regional office or submit complaints online from anywhere in the state.
“We’re going to have more discussions about what we can do concretely together, but I say for Watertown specifically, keep doing what you’re doing to create a place that people want to stay and live in,” Ms. Fernandez said.