Long Past Time to Turn the Corner

In December of this year, it will have been a decade since New York State adopted its gay rights law –– the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA). Coming 31 years after LGBT New Yorkers first marched in Albany demanding basic civil rights protections, that was woefully tardy for a state ever thumping its chest about its progressive tradition.

The political expediency of that moment, however, was freighted with an unhappy bargain –– language that would have protected transgender and other gender-nonconforming New Yorkers was not a part of the bill. As with the state’s hate crimes law adopted two years earlier, the trans community was advised to be patient –– their time would come.

Since SONDA was passed, LGBT New Yorkers, under the leadership of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), have achieved two of three leading legislative goals –– enactment of marriage equality and passage of anti-bullying legislation for public school students. Though the bullying law includes protections based on gender identity and expression, a transgender civil rights bill has never received a vote in the State Senate.

It is long past time to enact the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. If a primary function of government is to afford dignity, opportunity, and safety to everyone –– especially the most economically and socially marginalized among us –– GENDA is a moral imperative.

All of us in the LGBT community know well the risk we face from harassment and bias violence, even if the Stonewall Rebellion is more than four decades behind us. Little known, I would bet, are statistics from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs that show that year in and year out about half of the hate-motivated murders we suffer target transgender women.

The transgender community also experiences pervasive employment discrimination and inadequate or no access to health care appropriate to their needs. The underground market for some health services often exploits them, and the recourse to sex work on the part of trans women unable to find other employment makes them prey to violence and the vagaries of the criminal justice system.

Those incarcerated after running afoul of the law often face punishing violence and rape. Even as the US Justice Department finalizes regulations on combating the dangers of prison rape, there are indications that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees US immigration detention centers, may prove resistant to implementing humane changes in their practices.

The scope of the challenges facing the trans community, of course, are larger than what a state civil rights law can reasonably be expected to cure. But it is also true that in a civilized society, one that is the richest in human history, the life choices thrust on transgender citizens are simply unacceptable.

In New York and across the nation, we have waited too long to address this injustice. As transgender activist Melissa Sklarz notes, in comments reported in our cover story, the political system has so failed the transgender community that the courts –– even a federal judiciary disproportionately filled with Republican appointees –– have been moved increasingly to step in. In a growing body of case law, bias based on gender identity and expression is being judged as impermissible sex discrimination –– certainly a welcome advance.

That does not take away the responsibility of the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo to get their job done. ESPA led 550 activists up to Albany this week to press for action on GENDA, but its focus on also “thanking” legislators for doing the right thing on marriage last year was an implicit acknowledgement that Albany continues to view action on our behalf as political risky.

The Log Cabin Republicans told Gay City News that –– their commitment to GENDA notwithstanding –– their priority this year is the reelection of the four GOP senators who were with us on marriage. Clearly, there is worry about the implications of any of those four being turned out of office –– and Log Cabin is probably not the only group watching that situation with bated breath.

Meanwhile, the new Democratic sponsor of GENDA, Senator Daniel Squadron, voices confidence that our side would prevail if a floor vote were called, but argues that Republican majority leadership is the obstacle. And, he also concedes that he could not today name the 32 votes he needs to put the measure over the top.

The governor exercised extraordinary leadership last year in making marriage equality a reality, yet it is also true that the executive cannot provide high profile, high stakes initiative on every agenda item in Albany. As with marriage, success will depend on the Republican Senate’s willingness to negotiate, even bargain. Even after the advocates’ impressive turnout in the Capitol this week, there are no clear signs that those discussions are primed to happen in the seven weeks prior to the end of the regular legislative year.

Sklarz also makes another telling observation –– Majority Leader Dean Skelos risked alienating his most conservative members by allowing the marriage bill to move, but also delivered to them a redistricting map likely to protect their majority in November. Without speculating about whether those two outcomes were directly related, it is fair to ask the Republican Senate why they are skittish.

And if their caution, or indifference, or hostility prevents them from acting this year, what possible impediment could a Republican Senate in 2013 cite to justify continued inaction on transgender rights?

Waiting that long is not right. The bill has languished for years, and there is no reason not to finish the job now. But should Albany stall, as it has so long done, and SONDA’s decade anniversary pass with no action on GENDA, we will be calling on the governor to step up the pace of his advocacy on transgender rights and demand that New York again live up to its proud history as a social justice champion.