When Helena Stone, 70 years old and a 37-year telephone company employee, was assigned to repair phones based in Grand Central Terminal in August, her life became a hell. She alleges that police from the Metropolitan Transit Authority subjected her to repeated arrest, verbal abuse, and physical harassment because she is transgendered. While the MTA said this week that the charges against Stone would be dropped, about 50 demonstrators braved the cold outside the terminal on East 42nd Street on Tuesday to condemn the anti-transgender harassment.
"I would like to work in peace and not risk being arrested every day," Stone said at a press conference.
Michael Silverman, director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, has filed a complaint with the City Commission on Human Rights and with the MTA police on Stone’s behalf to see to it that no other person is subjected to such illegal treatment on the basis of their gender identity or expression.
Stone works for Verizon with an office deep in the bowels of the terminal. She said that when she has ventured out to do her job, she has been targeted by a Lieutenant Brian Henry among others for abuse.
Five months ago, she said, Henry demanded her "pass" and after she took too much time to find it, arrested her. When he refused to state what the charges were, Stone told him, "this is why some people call the police terrorists." She was charged with "malicious language," but that conduct only occurred after she was already under arrest. No pretext has been offered for the initial arrest.
In December, Henry barged into her Verizon office and allegedly began abusing Stone. She said that he shouted, "Do you want to fuck me? Do you want to hit me?’" She added, "He called me a freak, a weirdo, and the ugliest woman in the world. I told him I’d sue and he said he didn’t care, that the city will pay for it. He arrested me and paraded me through the food court in handcuffs."
In January, police including Henry followed her into the women’s restroom, where she was in a stall. She emerged voluntarily but was dragged out of the facility. "Your ID says you’re a male," one cop said. "You don’t belong in here." "I told the police I was allowed to use the women’s room under city law," Stone said.
Again she was paraded in cuffs through the terminal and charged with disorderly conduct and "creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose."
Silverman said going to the toilet is certainly a "legitimate purpose." He said that Stone has been forced to relieve herself in her office in a cup and developed a urinary tract infection.
Stone said that she has never had problems with women in restrooms, but that when she has ventured into a men’s room, the men who see her act like they’ve wandered into the wrong restroom.
"We have a meeting with Internal Affairs," Silverman said, "and they said they would have to interview Lieutenant Henry." The MTA would not guarantee that Stone would not continue to be subjected to arrest.
Just prior to the demonstration and again afterward, Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the MTA, said the charges against Stone had been dismissed and that the authority was "doing a review" of the circumstances of the arrests. He said that K.D. Lapp, executive director of the MTA, had been apprised of the situation on Monday. He said of Stone, "She can use the ladies’ room if she wishes," but could not say how the MTA police would be trained to deal sensitively with people of transgender experience, something Silverman is demanding.
While the MTA is a state authority and claims not to be bound by city laws in some regards, Silverman filed a complaint with the City Commission on Human Rights because the issue of access to restrooms is not a transportation issue particular to the authority, but a public accommodation issue.
"This is a problem transgendered people experience regularly," Silverman said. Under guidelines developed by the city after amending the human rights law to cover people of transgender experience in 2003, it is illegal not to allow "individuals to use a restroom or other sex-segregated facility consistent with their gender identity or expression."
Silverman said the general counsel for the MTA assured him on Wednesday "that Helena and all transgendered people can use restrooms consistent with their gender identity and expression. We’re continuing to work with the MTA to make certain these assurances are translated into concrete policy."
Dee Perez of GLOBE, the LGBT group from Bushwick that is part of Make the Road by Walking and organized the demo, said, "I know my rights, but this could happen to me." She is hopeful that attention brought to the issue will result in sensitivity training for police officers on transgender issues.
Across the river in New Jersey, there was good news. Lily McBeth, a 71-year-old substitute teacher at Eagleswood Elementary School who transitioned from man to woman on the job, is being allowed to keep her job despite objections from a handful of parents. "It was magnificent," she said of the school board meeting that affirmed her employment. "You saw democracy in action."