Historic Vote Caps 31-Year Effort At Long Last, Victory

Pataki signs gay rights law; gender debate roared to the end

By ANDY HUMM | Jeff Soref and Matt Foreman of Empire State Pride Agenda Amidst tears, hugs, smiles, cheers, sighs of relief, and no small amount of recriminations, the New York State Senate voted 34 – 26 on December 17 to adopt a bill that adds “sexual orientation” to the list of protected categories in the state human rights law. Twenty-one Democrats and 13 Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Troy) who once vehemently opposed it, voted aye. Just an hour before the vote, the outcome was in doubt due to intense lobbying against it from the state Conservative Party and Roman Catholic bishops. “The time has come,” Bruno said. It was the first time that the Republican-controlled body had permitted a vote on the bill, first introduced in 1971 and passed by increasing margins by the Democratic-dominated Assembly since 1993. Republican Governor George Pataki, who in October made a deal with the Empire State Pride Agenda, the lead gay lobbying group on the bill, to get it to the floor of the Senate in order to win the group’s endorsement for his re-election, signed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) that evening. Earlier in the day, Pataki was on the phone wooing wavering Senators to vote for the bill. An amendment by out gay Sen. Tom Duane (D-West Side) to add “gender identity” to the bill to cover people of transgender experience got 19 Democratic votes and no Republicans. Duane, who did not reveal until December 13 that he would vote for SONDA even without an amendment to protect “gender identity,” was attacked by Jeff Soref, a former Pride Agenda co-chair who stayed involved in lobbying for the bill, as a “coward” for “speaking from the shelter of a city that protects gay and transgendered citizens” while “jeopardizing the rights of tens of thousands of gays and lesbians upstate” who are not covered by local civil rights laws. Even two days after the vote, Soref termed Duane a “demagogue.” Had Duane’s amendment been adopted, the Assembly would have had to reconvene before the end of the year to approve the inclusive version or SONDA would have been dead until next year. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) had said he had no intention of bringing his members back for a special session. But Assemblymember Dick Gottfried (D-Chelsea) said that they would have reconvened “in a second” if the Senate included “gender identity” in SONDA. The Pride Agenda opposed Duane’s approach because the governor had not committed to transgender inclusion and opening the bill up in the Assembly, where amendments can more easily be made than in the Senate, had risks. Matt Foreman, the Pride Agenda’s executive director, warned that returning the bill to the Assembly could invite a disabling amendment banning state recognition of same-sex marriages. “My strategy worked well,” Duane countered. “We got the message out that there is strong support for transgender inclusion and SONDA passed.” On the Senate floor, Duane complained of “vicious attacks” from “small, but powerful groups in the gay community who are willing to turn their backs on the transgendered community.” New York is now the 13th state protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation. Rhode Island and Minnesota also afford protections based on gender identity. Foreman said they were “overjoyed” at SONDA’s passage, arguing that it lays “the foundation for winning full equality under the law in areas such as taxation, projections for gay youth and transgendered people, and recognition of our families.” He said that calls and e-mails have been pouring in from all over the state congratulating the Pride Agenda on its work. “That’s what means so much to me,” he said. Foreman was vigorously applauded at a press conference after the vote. Not everyone was happy. The most visible opponents in Albany were fundamentalist Christians and a few Orthodox Jews who occupied more than half the gallery in the ornate Senate chamber. The Catholic Conference, representing the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, lobbied against the bill. Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop of New York and a notorious homophobe, was said to have phoned some Senators personally to try to stop passage. Forman noted that Catholic opposition was more muted and less effective because of that Church’s sex scandals in the past year. The Archdiocese’s press office did not return calls seeking comment on the cardinal’s lobbying efforts. Conservative Party chair Mike Long was all over the tube denouncing passage and was effective in keeping all but one of Nassau County’s Republican-Conservative Senators from voting for SONDA. “Only Michael Balboni (R-East Williston) had the courage to stand up to the Conservative Party and do the right thing,” Foreman said. In contrast to the situation in Nassau, the four Suffolk County Republicans voted aye. Activists from the New York Transgender Coalition, Metropolitan Gender Network, and Housing Works also roamed the halls of the capitol, urging defeat of SONDA if “gender identity” was not a part of it. Craig “Bu” Boone, a person of transgender experience from Manhattan, said, “If they pass SONDA without transgenders, they won’t be including everybody.” Posters with the image of Sylvia Rivera, the veteran transgendered activist who died earlier this year, were on display reading, “Don’t Let Them Betray Us Again,” and “We Were at Stonewall; Never Forget Who Died for Us.” One Senator, William Stachowski (D-Buffalo) voted for Duane’s transgender amendment and against SONDA. Asked why by the Buffalo News, he replied, “Because I did.” When Duane’s amendment failed and SONDA passed covering only “heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality,” Charles King, co-director of Housing Works who had lobbied hard for transgender inclusion, said, “I’m a gay man and I’m very sad.” Howie Katz, a gay activist who worked for years on passage of hate crimes legislation in Albany, said, “I feel that the political realities of Albany said that this was the only bill that could pass.” He said that some created “false expectations for [transgendered] people who need protections.” When reminded that African American legislators held up the hate crimes bill for eleven years rather than let it pass without including “sexual orientation,” Katz said that the “vast majority of hate crimes of a serious nature” were gay bashings. Even though the vast majority of votes for this bill in both chambers came from Democrats, the local Log Cabin Club was anxious to credit Republican leadership. Jeff Cook, the group’s state political director, said it was a “big day” for Pataki and, like the Pride Agenda, hailed the governor as having done more for gay people than any previous governor. Reminded that Pataki campaigned against gay rights in his 1994 race versus Mario Cuomo, Cook said, “Eight years ago, I was a fundamentalist Christian.” David Paterson (D-Harlem), the new Senate minority leader who delivered all but three members of his caucus for SONDA, also cited a Republican, if only to refute him. “President Eisenhower said you can’t legislate morality,” he said, “but today we passed a law that protects people from the immorality of others.”

Sheila Healy, an Albany activist who had worked for over a decade on this bill and is now head of the Pride Agenda’s educational foundation, pronounced herself “relieved” at its passage. “It takes the starch out of you,” she said of the tense day of negotiations. Ethan Geto, a gay activist for as long as a state gay rights bill has been around and now a political consultant who worked for the Pride Agenda on this campaign, said on the bus back from Albany, “On the one hand I feel elated because I know how much the legislation will mean in very real terms in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. But I’m feeling a little down that the scope and importance of the victory will be tempered in the public projection by the tone of dispute over transgender issues.” In a way, this 31-year-old bill bumped up against history. By the time it came up for serious consideration, a growing transgender rights movement had arisen that was not going to sit silently by while SONDA went forward without including them. Foreman, an attorney and a city human rights commissioner, voiced concern that the defeat of Duane’s amendment could jeopardize court cases currently being waged by transgendered plaintiffs arguing that they are protected under the law’s existing prohibition on sex discrimination. “We had a pristine legislative record that we no longer have,” Foreman said. He said lawyers for defendants in these discrimination cases could cite this debate to say that it was the legislature’s intent to exclude people of transgender experience from protection. Craig Gurian, a leading New York civil rights attorney, said that while such argument can be made, the legislative record would likely not be viewed as definitive on this point. “I don’t think there is particularly strong evidence that in the deal that was made for this bill, [transgender inclusion] was outside of it,” he said. According to The New York Times, when Governor Pataki was asked Wednesday about his support for transgendered New Yorkers as a protected class, he “said with a tight smile, ‘I am pleased that this legislation passed.’” Among those who came back to the capitol for the passage of SONDA were former Pride Agenda’s executive directors Dick Dadey and Joe Grabarz, Assemblymember-elect Danny O’Donnell, an out gay man, and veteran out lesbian Assemblymember Deborah Glick, whose election in 1990 paved the way for the bill’s first victory in the Assembly in 1993. As the bill was being debated on the floor, Foreman, Dadey, Soref, Geto, and former Pride Agenda board member Cynthia Dames stood high up in the gallery, looking a bit like Mount Rushmore, stonily viewing the tense proceedings which included an occasional attack on the Pride Agenda’s tactics from Democratic Senators Duane and the departing Dan Hevesi of Queens. Foreman said last week, “At the end of the day, we’ll all be together and we’ll all be friends.” Though tensions continue between Duane and the Pride Agenda, the groups lobbyists and the transgender rights activists who had opposed them had no shouting matches in the capitol hallways after the vote (though it is hard to believe Sylvia Rivera would not have raised her voice if she were still alive). Many of the Democratic Senators giddily celebrated one of the very rare opportunities to approve a bill where they provided the bulk of the votes. And there was much celebrating by isolated activists in regions of the state not previously covered by gay rights protections. “It’s a very historic day for us,” Patrick McHugh of the Binghamton Area Rainbow Association told the Press and Sun Bulletin. His group, he said, has ten active members. His Senator, Republican Thomas Libous, voted against SONDA.