Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick, NY Sen. Chuck Schumer, Nathan Schaefer Debut Highlight ESPA Dinner

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | The annual fall dinner of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) saw a passionate plea from Massachusetts Democratic Governor Deval Patrick for the LGBT community to join other progressives in “common cause” for social and economic justice, a muscular advocacy for continued progress on gay rights from New York’s senior US senator, Chuck Schumer, also a Democrat, and the first public appearance by Nathan Schaefer since his appointment as the group’s new executive director.

Nathan Schaefer. | ESPA

Schaefer, 31 and most recently the public policy director at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was named by the ESPA board on September 15, and he begins his duties on October 15. His October 11 address to the group’s annual Manhattan dinner –– which this year raised nearly $1 million –– was a relatively brief, broad strokes affair, but he did make clear his first priority in the new job and offered the audience three insights into his “style.”

Even after recent ESPA victories on marriage equality and public school anti-bullying protections, Schaefer said there are “many journeys to come,” then added, “Let’s be clear, the immediate journey” is securing passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) –– a transgender civil rights bill –– bottled up in the State Senate for nearly a decade since the enactment of New York’s gay rights law.

Regarding what the LGBT community can expect from Schaefer’s leadership, he said, “I want to hear from all of you. I need to be well-armed with your personal stories.”

With control of the State Senate next year uncertain –– with the chamber currently nearly evenly divided, 33-29 in favor of Republicans –– he said ESPA needs to “remain nimble, innovative, and ultimately victorious.” Politics and strategy, he noted, involve “ebb and flow.”

“Shift happens,” he said.

The third point Schaefer emphasized about his approach to leading ESPA is that he “firmly believes in building consensus among all stakeholders.”

Beyond GENDA, he also talked about stepping up efforts to provide housing for LGBT youth, maintaining funding for groups delivering LGBT health and social services statewide, on which ESPA has played the key lobbying role in Albany for more than 15 years, and expanding options for LGBT parenting, including opening up surrogacy as a choice for prospective parents. New York is one of the few states in the country where surrogacy is legally barred.

Schaefer, whose family from out of town joined him for the evening, also spoke in personal terms about what his new responsibilities meant to him. Noting that October 11 is National Coming Out Day, he acknowledged that like so many LGBT youth, he struggled to overcome “deep shame and loneliness” growing up. Accepting his new post, he said, is “the greatest honor of my life.”

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. | GAY CITY NEWS

Governor Patrick, in his keynote address, spoke with considerable passion about his journey from an impoverished youth on Chicago’s South Side to his election as governor of Massachusetts in 2006, when he succeeded the state’s one-term chief executive Mitt Romney. Early in his tenure, Patrick took two critical steps in defending and expanding on the historic 2003 victory of marriage equality there.

First, he lobbied legislators hard to finally put a bullet in the last of several efforts to force a voter referendum on equal marriage rights. Later, the African-American governor led the fight to repeal a 1913 law that barred marriage by out-of-state couples unable legally to marry in their home states. That law was enacted so that Massachusetts would respect the racist miscegenation laws of other states.

Noting that his own daughter came out several months after his success in putting an end to any anti-gay referendum effort, Patrick said that in his view, “Social justice was about common cause.” Talking about issues like poverty and immigration, he challenged the generally well-heeled crowd, saying, “Will you make your neighbors’ struggles and dreams your own?”

He ended by saying, “So I celebrate your success in winning social justice for the LGBTQ community, but I ask you to see your stake in the broader struggle and to act on it.”

Senator Schumer was introduced by out lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who said his advocacy on behalf of marriage equality in the several years before its enactment in New York brought the issue “to a whole new level.” She also credited him with recommending to President Barack Obama three out gay or lesbian federal judges.

Last year, J. Paul Oetken, a Schumer nominee, became the first out gay man to win confirmation to a seat on a federal district court bench –– in the Manhattan-based Southern District of New York. Later in 2011, Alison J. Nathan won confirmation as the second out lesbian in a lifetime federal court appointment, also in the Southern District. In August of this year, Obama, acting on Schumer’s recommendation, nominated Pamela Ki Mai Chen, an out lesbian, to a seat in the Brooklyn-based Eastern District of New York, where she currently serves as an assistant US attorney. Chen awaits Senate confirmation.

In his remarks, Schumer noted that the Nathan appointment survived 11th hour opposition from Republicans –– last year, he described it as “a sneak attack” in comments to Gay City News. That opposition, he said at the ESPA dinner, spawned “pure hatred” in comments on the floor of the Senate.

Schumer closed his remarks by paraphrasing an assurance Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. many times offered his supporters: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”