Potty Politics: Studying Gender Inclusivity in the Concrete Jungle

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Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis to head the NYCCHR in Nov. 2014. (COURTESY OF DIANA ROBINSON VIA FLICKR)

By KYLE J. KILKENNY, Staff Writer

Much like short-term study abroad programs to locations like Morocco, Rome and Granada, summer internships are excellent ways for Fordham students to complement their in-classroom learning with “real world” work experience. After returning from Fordham’s Rome summer program last Fall, I knew I needed to take advantage of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC)’s prime location and secure an internship. However, in the true spirit of this past academic year, my projected summer internship opportunities did not go according to plan.

While I had applied to various internships on the federal level, based in both Washington, D.C., and New York, I had done so thinking I would be working for agencies under the Clinton Administration. After I watched the returns on Nov. 8, I knew I needed to focus on fortifying local and state policies to protect historically disadvantaged groups who are under attack by our current administration.

After working on a project for Dr. Christina M. Greer’s “Introduction to Urban Politics” class and taking Dr. Zein Murib’s “Political History of Sex and Sexuality” seminar during the Spring 2017 semester, I came to realize a new passion of mine: fighting for gender inclusivity, particularly in regards to transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex (TGNCI) individuals. I expressed this to my advisor, Dr. Greer, and she suggested I apply for an internship with the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR).

The NYCCHR, also known as simply “The Commission,” is a non-criminal law enforcement agency which enforces the New York City Human Rights Law. According to their website, “The Law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on race, color, religion/creed, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender (including sexual harassment), gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, pregnancy, marital status, and partnership status.” The agency is currently headed by Chair and Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in November 2014. Whereas the Mayor has recently gained popularity for being seen as an “anti-Trump” Progressive, Malalis has been a crusader for employees’ rights and other marginalized communities for decades.

During my eight-week tenure at the Commission, I was granted permission to research and develop a report on gender-neutral bathroom access in New York City’s most popular museums. While I initially wanted to focus on bathroom access in all public spaces, the Commissioner suggested I hone in on one subject area, to produce a more irrefutable delivery.

While the internship required long hours both in the office and out in the field, I enjoyed memorable fun moments throughout the summer. I started the first week of June, which is recognized in the United States (under most recent Presidents) as “Pride Month,” celebrating citizens’ various sexualities, gender identities and gender expressions. As an employee of the Commission, I was invited to the Mayor and First Lady’s Annual Pride Reception at Gracie Mansion and to march with them in the annual NYC Pride Parade. As both a student of politics and an advocate for the LGBTQ community, these experiences excited me and encouraged me to continue fighting the good fight. I was also granted various opportunities to network with human rights professionals across all fields, including legal, policy and law enforcement.

For the report, I trekked across New York City to visit 20 popular museums, including FCLC student favorites like the Museum of Sex, the Museum of Modern Art and my personal favorite, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I asked employees at each museum to answer five simple questions about single-occupancy restrooms in their spaces, and how their museum’s policies serve TGNCI visitors. While at times frustrating, these conversations proved fruitful and it was heartening to see professionals in the art community working towards making their spaces accessible and welcoming to everyone.

While it is impossible to quantify how inclusive we are as a city, I would like to impart recommendations to my fellow Fordham students on how we can best serve our TGNCI classmates, friends and fellow New Yorkers. My principal recommendation would be for students to familiarize themselves with the issues and laws facing these communities, and how the intersections of race, class, sexuality and ability interact with those of gender identity and gender expression. Prior to April of 2017, I did not know city government housed a Commission on Human Rights which enforced a New York City Human Rights Law, so my summer was full of on-the-job learning. While protests and rallies serve to draw attention to issues, it is through our privilege as students that we ought to educate ourselves so we can be better informed as to the protections we are all afforded as New Yorkers.

Lastly, I’d encourage Fordham students to read my report, aptly titled “Bathroom Accessibility in New York’s Most Popular Museums,” and engage in a fruitful dialogue on how our Jesuit community can reach out to understand and accommodate others. Like St. Ignatius himself, we should not seek to set the world on fire with our swords and shields, but rather with our hearts and minds.