In 2015, Giana Desir of Brooklyn, New York faced the prospect of homelessness after being denied a lease renewal for an apartment she had lived in for two years. While living in the apartment, Desir began her transition from assigned male to female.
Like many transgender people, Desir had difficulty finding a place to live as her authentic self.
Needing assistance, Desir turned to a real estate broker. But rather than help, Henry Walter and Empire State Realty Management only offered housing discrimination and sexual harassment.
Initial interactions on the phone were characterized as "jovial." However once Desir met Walter, things quickly turned sour.
In her complaint, Desir claimed upon their first meeting, Walter said:
"Why didn't you tell me you were transgender? Thank God, I had you come here at night. What would people have thought if they had seen you."
Once Walter realized Desir was a transgender woman, he told her he couldn't rent her an apartment near "people or children." He suggested she live in a basement.
The broker then made inappropriate comments about her genitalia, her transition, her sex life and then said he would "spank" her with his "ruler." Walter told her not to tell anyone he helped her because they would assume he let her suck his "d*ck."
Desir knew her rights had been violated so she filed a formal complaint against both Walter and his company. Last year an administrative judge awarded Desir $15,000 in compensation. Walter was also ordered to pay a $10,000 civil penalty.
On March 2, 2020 the New York Human Rights Commission increased Desir's compensation to $50,000 and Walter's civil penalty to $15,000-$25,000. Should Walter and his company participate in training on trans rights and sexual harassment they will pay the lesser amount.
Commissioner on Human Rights Carmelyn Malalis wrote:
"It is understandably damaging for someone such as Ms. Desir to have their gender identity—their deeply-felt sense of self—questioned, rejected, and sexualized, especially when in a vulnerable housing situation and having experienced the accumulated impact of past discrimination from others."
"The specific harm perpetrated against Ms. Desir is a reflection of the all-to-common experiences of transgender people, especially transgender women of color, that society has tolerated and ignored for all too long."
Assistant Commissioner Katherine Carroll told Gothamist:
"Having a decision on the books that lays out what these protections are very clearly makes it much easier for us to prosecute similar claims in the future because we can say, 'Here is a published decision and order that says you cannot discriminate against people who are trans, or gender-non-conforming—on the basis of anyone's gender identity, you cannot discriminate against them."
Walter and his company failed to participate in any way in the discrimination complaint or resolution process.
"There are bad actors in the city who think they can get away in not engaging when they receive a complaint of discrimination and think it'll just go away. [But Desir's case shows New York will collect the money and] takes it very seriously."
Giana Desir also hopes her case will help others.
"I know a lot of my friends who could not get apartments even though they were able to pay for the apartments because of their gender identity."
"I hope this creates an even playing field for us. I hope this opens people's eyes in hiring transgender women."
After all, trans rights are human rights.