Mariah Lopez has been suing New York City for transgender rights since she was a child.
In 1999, at age 13, she was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit charging that gay and lesbian children in foster care were subject to routine violence and psychological abuse.
At 17, she won the right to wear skirts and dresses in an all-male group home. At 20, she sued to force the city to pay for her gender affirmation surgery; though she ultimately lost, the city soon began covering such operations.
Ms. Lopez’s most recently resolved case against the city resulted in a sweeping settlement for transgender New Yorkers who are homeless, and who have long complained of harassment, discrimination, and sexual and physical violence in city homeless shelters.
By the end of this year, the city must open at least four dedicated shelters, or units within shelters, for transgender people. It must also put in place a host of anti-discrimination measures, including mandating anti-discrimination training for workers and overhauling how it responds to abuse complaints.
Ms. Lopez, who dropped out of high school, wrote out filings in longhand, without a lawyer, while crashing on friends’ floors and turning tricks to survive.
“Let me just paint this picture,” Ms. Lopez, 37, said of the homeless shelter case, which included proceedings in both federal court and the State Supreme Court and ended last November. “With my little clicky pen, and a dog, and barely any sleep because I was stressed, and a phone barely working to look up the law, I filed a chicken-scratch petition and it got me in front of a Supreme Court judge.”
The settlement comes amid a sharp increase in young people identifying as transgender and a growing awareness of the hurdles transgender people face. National studies have found that transgender people are much more likely to be homeless or unstably housed.
Ronald E. Richter, who was a deputy commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services while Ms. Lopez was suing the agency, said that when she first came on the scene, “Our system had absolutely no understanding of young people who were struggling with being transgendered and no appreciation of what being born misgendered meant.”
He said Ms. Lopez had always understood “that making people uncomfortable was a critical part of moving the dial.”
“She made a difference for young people who came after her,” he added.
Ms. Lopez’s life and voluminous court docket — she has filed at least 14 lawsuits against governmental agencies — reads like a history of a group’s struggle for acceptance.
On Being Transgender in America
She has also been arrested more times than she can count, often for sex work or for violating the vaguely worded and now-repealed anti-loitering law sometimes referred to as “walking while trans.” Along the way, she has alienated a fair number of fellow activists.
“I will not work with her,” said Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder of GLITS — Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society. “I find her problematic, disrespectful and not becoming of a Black trans leader in the community.”
David France, a filmmaker whom Ms. Lopez sued over a documentary he was making, said he admired her for her ability to harness her personal battles to make real change. “She has ways to catastrophize into really impactful, forward-looking litigation,” he said.
Born and raised in the Amsterdam Houses, a public-housing complex on the Upper West Side, Ms. Lopez entered foster care at age 9 after losing her drug-addicted mother to AIDS, and later her grandmother.
She spent much of her adolescence running away from group homes where, among other incidents, she was thrown down a flight of stairs and had her nose broken, according to the 1999 lawsuit.
She fled to “Transy House,” a Brooklyn brownstone presided over by the transgender icon Sylvia Rivera. She jump-started her own transition, buying hormones off the street and injecting silicone into her hips and thighs.
At 16, according to court documents, after she was kicked out of two homes for gay and transgender youth for misconduct, Ms. Lopez was placed in an all-boys home in Brooklyn, whose director issued a memo that said she could not “wear ‘female attire’ in the facility.” The Administration for Children’s Services backed him up.
“I was like, ‘Didn’t I just sue you?’” Ms. Lopez recalled. “Are you going to make me do it again?”
A judge ruled that the city was violating the New York State Human Rights Law. Ms. Lopez was allowed to wear skirts and dresses.
As Ms. Lopez approached 21, when she would age out of foster care, she tried to compel the city to pay for gender affirmation surgery. A family court judge deemed the surgery medically necessary and ruled in her favor, but the city appealed and won.
Two years later, though, the city adopted a policy of paying for the surgeries for youth in foster care. Mr. Richter, who is now the chief executive of JCCA, a foster care provider, said the shift was “a function of Mariah’s advocacy.”
Even as the surgery case was pending, Ms. Lopez took the city to court again. She sued the Police Department, claiming that, during false arrests for loitering, she was assaulted and subjected to gropings under the guise of manual “gender checks.”
The city settled for $35,000. Two months later, Ms. Lopez went to Florida and had her operation.
By 2017, Ms. Lopez, after earning her G.E.D. and briefly attending college upstate, was living with an aunt in Brooklyn. When the aunt died, Ms. Lopez and her service dog, Chica — Ms. Lopez suffers from PTSD, anxiety and depression — had nowhere to go.
She sought placement through the Department of Homeless Services at the city’s first shelter for L.G.B.T.Q. people, Marsha’s House, an 81-bed facility that had just opened in the Bronx. The shelter is named for Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender pioneer. Ms. Lopez has revived a transgender rights group founded by Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rivera, renaming it STARR, for Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform.
Although Ms. Lopez was accepted at Marsha’s House, her dog was not. So she sued, and a judge ruled in her favor. Ms. Lopez and Chica moved in, and things immediately went south.
According to Ms. Lopez’s court papers, staff members and security guards at Marsha’s House made sexual advances, asked to see her genitals, called her insulting names, intimidated her into sex and threatened to assault her, then retaliated by making up disciplinary charges after she filed complaints.
Eric Rosenbaum, the chief executive of Project Renewal, the nonprofit that runs Marsha’s House for the city, said Project Renewal investigated Ms. Lopez’s claims and found no corroboration of them, adding that the city had asked Project Renewal to operate some of the new transgender-friendly shelter units.
The city transferred Ms. Lopez to a women’s shelter, claiming in court papers that she violated rules, threatened staff and hit a security guard. The women’s shelter had better mental-health services and a permanent police presence, the city wrote.
Ms. Lopez refused to go, citing retaliation concerns and saying that, at a women’s shelter, she would have to choose between being harassed or being closeted as a transgender woman.
As the court fight dragged on, Ms. Lopez gathered evidence that transgender people across the city’s shelter system were mistreated. In 2019, she filed another handwritten motion, seeking to certify the case as a class action. “This abuse and neglect is widespread and systemic,” she wrote.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy nonprofit, joined the lawsuit. It interviewed dozens of transgender people about abusive conditions at shelters. Many said they felt so unsafe that they were forced to return to being homeless.
“We accumulated really horrific stories about people being chased out of shelter, as if people had pitchforks,” said Chinyere Ezie, a lawyer for the center. “People reported when they put complaints in writing, seeing them balled up and thrown in the garbage.”
The city, which initially fought the case, entered settlement talks aimed at what it called “systemic reform.”
The settlement allows shelter clients to appeal to city lawyers about how shelters respond to their complaints. The city must also report to Ms. Lopez every six months on its progress toward fulfilling the settlement’s terms. It filed its first report on Tuesday.
Ms. Lopez also received a payment of “close to six figures,” Ms. Ezie said.
“We thank Mariah Lopez for her leadership on this issue,” the Department of Homeless Services said in a statement after the settlement.
On Tuesday, the department said it was “proud of the progress” it had made in complying with the settlement, “from instructing shelter staff to use preferred pronouns and gender markers to create an affirming environment to developing an expedited intake process.”
Ms. Lopez has filed five more cases since the homeless shelter case, including one seeking reimbursement from the city for her surgery and another against the city of Albany for not letting her take Chica on a bus.
Her most recent lawsuit seeks to block the creation of a beach along the piers in the West Village, a longtime center of transgender Black and Hispanic street life that includes the spot where Marsha P. Johnson’s body was pulled from the Hudson River in 1992.
Ms. Lopez argued that the project’s effect on a historically significant area must first be assessed and said that, if the beach were built, transgender people of color would “be replaced by white cis hetero sunbathers.”
Ms. Lopez does not seem to have any intention of slowing down. She recalled the first time she set foot in a law office, when she was 13 and visited Paul, Weiss, the prestigious firm working pro bono on her first lawsuit.
“We were in this enormous conference room,” she said. The lawyers “had their coats off and their sleeves rolled up with law books open. And I was like, ‘Oh, I think this is what I want to do.’”