Interview with Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, Carmelyn P. Malalis

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Carmelyn P. Malalis is a lesbian of color who is working to make New York City an even greater place to live for LGBTQ people, as well as for immigrants and other minorities. She was appointed Chair and Commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights by Mayor Bill de Blasio in November of 2014, and lives with her wife and two daughters in Brooklyn. While she calls New York City home, she thinks globally, and has advocated for employees’ workplace rights for more than a decade. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about workplace discrimination, particularly lesbians, two-mother families, and women of color. We are fortunate to have Malalis playing for our team and setting a strong example for the world.

Commissioner bio pic

AfterEllen.com: As the daughter of immigrants and a lesbian woman of color, why NYC is your chosen home?

Carmelyn P. Malalis: NYC prides itself on diversity and inclusion. In NYC, you are more likely to see many different types of people with varying backgrounds, colors, religions, and identities interacting with each other, than in most other towns and municipalities. There are few places in the world like NYC. Here, I have community for myself and my family. We can raise our daughters around other people of color, many of whom are from immigrant communities, other families with same-sex parents, as well as people of different faiths who embrace diversity.

AE: What changes have you seen taking place in NYC over the last ten years with regard to discrimination cases?

CM: I’ve noticed a tremendous increase in inquiries from LGBTQ people when they experience discrimination. As marriage equality started to spread in different jurisdictions, LGBTQ people became increasingly aware of their rights and emboldened to fight for those rights and their lives free from hate. Because people are more vocal, and more knowledgeable of their rights, the NYC Commission on Human Rights is seeing a dramatic uptick in complaints of LGBTQ discrimination. In fact, in the last two years since I became Chair and Commissioner of the Commission, the Commission has more than doubled the investigations into discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Commissioner Malalis at NYC Pride, 2016

Commissioner Malalis at NYC Pride, 2016

AE: What issues do lesbian women, and families with two mothers, face that are distinct from their gay male counterparts?

CM: There are several issues that disproportionately affect women and two-mother families. Take pay equity, for example. Women still earn 79 cents for every dollar that a man does. Compare a two-mother family income with a two-father family income, and you’ll likely see the family with two fathers have a larger income to support their family. Take into consideration a two-mother household with two women of color like mine, and you’ll usually see that gap widen.

Women also face a number of issues in the workplace after starting a family. At the Commission, we see women who have been demoted or fired for their decision to start or expand their families. We also see women struggle in the workplace because employers fail to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related condition as they are required to under the City Human Rights Law.

AE: How do you see lesbian women of color are faring in regard to workplace discrimination?

CM: New York University put out a study last year that applicants who did not have “LGBT indicators” on their resume — such as professional or volunteer experience involving LGBTQ organizations — were 29 percent more likely to be contacted for a interview than the applicant who did. Being a lesbian woman of color also means that you are fighting stereotypes and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and/or any combination of race, color, national origin, immigration status, etc.

“Being a lesbian woman of color also means that you are fighting stereotypes and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and/or any combination of race, color, national origin, immigration status, etc.” 

I remember early on in my career I showed up for my first appearance in federal court. When I entered the courtroom and and the judge saw me, he said:  “Okay, we can start now.  The interpreter is here.” My adversary looked over at me and visibly tried to contain his laughter. I felt undermined and humiliated — the judge obviously had an image of what a lawyer looks like and I didn’t fit it. Unlike my adversary, I had to overcome that stereotype and my own feelings on the spot, and perform.  LGBTQ women of color have experiences like this everyday in their workplaces.

Thankfully, LGBTQ women of color in New York City are protected by one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country. The NYC Human Rights Law, and the Commission can help them hold violators accountable and get justice under the Law when they experience discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and/or any combination of race, color, national origin, immigration status, etc.

“Thankfully, LGBTQ women of color in New York City are protected by one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country.”

AE: What are your goals for the next year to change workplace discrimination and overall public perception of minorities in NYC?

CM: I’m hopeful that nearly all of the 8.5 million people living in NYC will know their rights, and will know where to go if they see or experience discrimination or harassment in their workplace. Over the next year, we will continue to expand our outreach, events, and “Know Your Rights” trainings (in multiple languages) so that every New Yorker understands their rights under City Human Rights Law and knows how to report discrimination to the Commission. We will also continue “Know Your Obligation” trainings for employers so they understand the law and the consequences for discriminating against employees, as well as workshops that have a cultural competency component so that different life experiences are not as foreign to people in NYC.

Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis joined Mayor Bill de Blasio during the Exeutivr Order #16 that will make NYC bathrooms safer for transgender people. Photo Credit: Mariela Lombard for NYC Commission of Human Rights.

Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis joined Mayor Bill de Blasio during the Exeutivr Order #16 that will make NYC bathrooms safer for transgender people.
Photo Credit: Mariela Lombard for NYC Commission of Human Rights.

AE: Which cities do you think are safest right now for LGBTQ people, as well as for immigrants? (besides NYC of course!)

CM: I’m hesitant to name any city as “safer” than another city as hate crimes and bias incidents continue to climb across the nation, including in New York City. I would advise any vulnerable communities in every city — LGBTQ, immigrant, or otherwise —to be aware of their surroundings and to know their rights under the Law so that they can report discrimination when/if it occurs.

If people witness or are the victim of discrimination in New York City, they can call 311 and ask for Human Rights or call the Commissioner directly at 718-722-3131.

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