By Leo Spychala with Special Thanks to Joshua Guthals & Divpreet Kaur
On February 22, 2012, Melissa Sklarz made history when she became the first transgender person elected President of The Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, the largest LGBT Democratic political club in both the City and State of New York. This victory was just the latest in Ms. Sklarz’s long history of breaking barriers; in 1999, she was the first transgender person to run for and win political office in New York State when she was elected Judicial Delegate from the 66th Assembly District. In 2004, she became the first transgender person in the state to be appointed as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. Though her two-year term as President ended this past February, Sklarz remains active in politics while maintaining a successful professional life as a director of the Actors Federal Credit Union.
Before her personal and professional success, Sklarz struggled with alcohol and substance abuse. She felt that she would never be able to transition successfully, “I didn’t have the language, I didn’t have a role model, I didn’t have a road map. I just had feelings that didn’t have words for them.” When she became homeless and jobless she felt she had to reevaluate the direction of her life. After entering and completing a rehabilitation program, Sklarz joined the Gender Identity Project as a peer counselor at the LGBT Center in Greenwich Village. It was here that she met other transgender women she could relate to, having always felt different from the few transgender women she did know who she describes as being very glamorous. “It was profound, it was a shock, because I thought I was unique and that there were not people like me. And going there to the support groups, I found out that there were.” It was during this time that Sklarz got her start in public service when she passionately spoke out at a public hearing against the transphobia that was occurring in her neighborhood at the time, Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. “And they got even with me,” Sklarz jokes, “they put me on the community board.”
In 2002, New York State passed SONDA, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Language that would have included gender expression and identity was ultimately excluded from the final law, leaving transgender people open to legal discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations and education. In the twelve years following, Sklarz has been fighting for the passage of GENDA, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a similar bill that would outlaw discrimination based on gender expression or identity.Speaking on the bill, Sklarz states, “we’ve got to change the minds of New York State, almost literally one person at a time.” At the time of this interview Sklarz was gearing up to get GENDA passed in this year’s legislative session which runs from January to June. She expressed concern that the passage of the bill in an election year would be tough and so far she has been correct; with the legislative session coming to a close, the bill has passed in the State assembly, but the State senate has yet again failed to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
No matter the outcome, Melissa Sklarz will continue to fight for the rights of all New Yorkers, especially against those who try to distort the message of the non-discrimination law. She explains that laws like this will have no effect on 99% of people, but for those who are affected the outcome will be significant. “The enemies of transgender people use their talking points to frame our discussions as mostly bathroom oriented. We try to explain to them [that] transgender people have been using bathrooms for fifty years. That will not change. What changes is we will not be harassed when we use them.”
On her tenure as President of the Stonewall Democratic Club, Sklarz said her victory sent out a message that the initials LGBT do not just mean gay, white men. With the rise of more positive coverage by the media of transgender people, she hopes to see others follow in her footsteps. “My success took years. The goal of me being out and visible is that the next generation, their success, won’t take years.”
For more information about GENDA, check out http://www.prideagenda.org/igniting-equality/current-legislation/gender-expression-non-discrimination-act
T-Talk is a transgender women’s project seeking to reduce sexual health risk, substance use, and internalized stigma affecting the community. If you’re a transwoman living in NYC, follow this link to see if you’re eligible to participate: https://chest.az1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_bQHdE91Bfq9tvMM&Study=ttalk