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After Obama, New York governor Andrew Cuomo takes stand for transgender rights

By Reuters | January 24th 2015

This week was nothing short of historic for the Americans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and, in particular, transgender.

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to make a groundbreaking reference to LBGT people in the annual State of the Union address.

"As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened... That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender," Obama said.

The next day in his State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged legislators to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which would outlaw discrimination of transgender people.

Both speeches come at a pivotal moment for the rights of transgender people, who are increasingly speaking out and winning legal recognition around the world.

American transgender actress Laverne Cox, who starred in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black”, appeared on the cover of a Time magazine issue in May titled “The transgender tipping point”, about the next social movement after same-sex marriage to challenge deeply held cultural beliefs.

In Asia, India and Thailand have taken steps to recognise the “third gender” and ensure the legal rights of transgender people.

Non-discrimination laws similar to New York's GENDA have been passed in 18 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, where they were successfully implemented, according to rights group Empire State Pride Agenda.

However, there is no federal or state-wide legislation in New York that specifically prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and expression in employment or housing, the group said.

Rights groups say two out three transgender New Yorkers have experienced discrimination at work, and almost 30 percent have been victims of physical or sexual assault.

New York has taken positive steps to improve its transgender citizens' access to healthcare and other services. For example, New York City officials announced in October that they would try to change existing legislation to allow transgender people to alter the sex on their birth certificates.

In theory, most parts of the United States - except Tennessee, Ohio and Idaho – already allow transgender people to amend their birth certificates.

In practice, most jurisdictions, including New York City, ask for proof from a doctor that applicants have had surgery to alter the appearance of their genitals, Reuters reported.

This week’s speeches by Obama and Cuomo were important because they helped give recognition to entire communities.

As Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Time: “Make no mistake, the President of the United States condemning persecution against transgender people is pivotal... His mention of us makes us know that he meant us when he talked about Americans. When he spoke about children, he meant transgender children too.”

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