Melissa Sklarz speaks to Gay City News at Karu Café on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. | PAUL SCHINDLER
For the past several decades, Melissa Sklarz has amassed a wide-ranging portfolio in local LGBTQ and Democratic activism. An out transgender woman, Sklarz served on the Police Commissioner’s LGBT Advisory Committee that established standards for police interactions with the trans community; she’s been a co-president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City and a board member at the Empire State Pride Agenda; she was elected a judicial delegate to screen potential Democratic candidates for judgeships — first in New York County and later in Queens — and also a community board member in her old Manhattan neighborhood; and she was a 2016 presidential elector who cast one of the 29 votes that New York delivered to Hillary Clinton.
Now, Sklarz is aiming to make political life her full-time day job. In the September 13 Democratic primary in Queens’ 30th Assembly District, she is challenging first-termer Brian Barnwell, who himself two years ago ousted a fellow Democratic incumbent, Margaret Markey. The district, which is roughly 46 percent white, 26 percent Latinx, and 23 percent Asian, stretches from Middle Village and Maspeth through Woodside into portions of Astoria and Long Island City.
A Long Island native with a political science degree from SUNY Buffalo, Sklarz in a recent interview told Gay City News, “Running for office and politics have been a life-long dream… I spent 20 years as an activist, as an advocate, as a Democratic Party person, trying to advocate for my ideas, my policies, and my people running for office. This is my opportunity now.”
Longtime transgender leader taking on first-term Assembly incumbent
Seizing her opportunity now, in Sklarz’s telling, is related both to the climate in the country since the 2016 presidential election and to what she views as the backward-looking posture of her opponent.
“America looks very different today with the election of Donald Trump,” she explained. “I can no longer be comfortable living my life day to day without doing everything I possibly can do to make a difference and to secure an America that resonates for me.”
Barnwell’s voting record in Albany raises troubling questions for progressives already worried about the conservative direction of Washington. He voted no on out lesbian Deborah Glick’s Reproductive Health Act, which would update the state’s 1970 abortion rights law to fully encompass all guarantees provided by the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which many women’s health advocates worry is in mortal danger from a Trump Supreme Court. He also opposed then-Assemblymember Francisco Moya’s New York State Liberty Act, which would restrict state and local law enforcement involvement in federal government immigration round-up efforts.
Of Barnwell’s vote on women’s reproductive rights, Sklarz said, “Roe v. Wade is now 40 years old. It is under attack from religious people. The terms and conditions are narrowed every day. The idea of women’s reproductive health has been diminished and restricted. I believe in the right of women to have control of their own bodies and their own health. To be a Democrat in New York, this is not a radical idea.”
In similar fashion, Sklarz painted Barnwell as out of New York’s Democratic mainstream on immigration rights, as well, saying, “I don’t know how far the federal government is going to go as they continue their war on immigrants. The idea that immigrants are the problem in America is stunning in its inability to understand who we are as a nation and what our nation is. The idea that in this day and age that we have to create a law to protect immigrants in New York blows my mind. The idea that someone in the Democratic Party believes that this is not part of our agenda is unacceptable.”
Melissa Sklarz at a Brooklyn Loves Melissa fundraiser at Excelsior in Park Slope this past weekend, with Alan Fleishman, Daniel Tietz, and Christopher Murray. | FACEBOOK.COM
In an unmistakable sign of how attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have changed in recent years — at least here in the city — Sklarz is clearly running as the candidate in step with where her party is, despite the fact that she is several decades older than her opponent.
“In the aftermath of the election of 2016, I think it’s important for a progressive perspective here in the neighborhood,” she said. “I think the rights of women and immigrants and poor people are important. I see myself as a candidate of the 21st century.”
Sklarz also sees herself as a party insider. As a member of the Queens Northern Regular Democratic Club and “part of the team led by [Congressmember] Joe Crowley,” the county leader, she said, “I do all the petitioning. I do the canvassing. I support all their candidates. I do all of the work that’s called on for any operative in New York.”
Her access, in turn, has afforded Sklarz important relationships, she said.
“I’ve worked with three mayors of New York,” she said. “I’ve worked with three governors… I’ve worked with the current speaker, the previous speaker. I have lots of Assembly relationships. I’m ready to take my place and be part of the team.”
Two years ago, Barnwell captured attention for his campaign with his fiery opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to turn a Maspeth hotel into a homeless shelter. Noting her own experience with homelessness more than a quarter century ago — as she was facing her gender transition while struggling with substance abuse — Sklarz sounded a unifying theme on what is a thorny issue for many neighborhoods.
“Once I was able to have a roof over my head, I was able to look for work and change my life,” she said. “I think my experience on this issue can resonate with people. Now I own a home. I’ve owned a home for 11 years, but I remember when I didn’t. And I think my voice will resonate in that conversation.”
While Sklarz pointed out that “had the mayor worked with the community and the community board, they could have reached a better understanding of the needs of people to have housing in New York City,” she also credited de Blasio with “working very, very hard to try to house the 60,000 people without a roof over their heads.”
Sklarz is also a big booster of the action Governor Andrew Cuomo took in late 2015 to ensure that state law nondiscrimination protections based on sex are interpreted to protect transgender New Yorkers. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act has languished for more than 15 years in the State Senate, and some advocates have complained that Cuomo’s implicit support — at least until last week — for the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference to give their support to the Republican leadership has effectively blocked any action on GENDA. They also worry that executive action in protecting the trans community could be undone by a future Republican governor.
Sklarz doesn’t buy either argument. Cuomo’s action, she noted, was not an executive order but rather a determination by the State Division of Human Rights that critics had 90 days to challenge — and did not. She also alluded, somewhat elliptically, to the fact that there have — to date, at least — never been enough votes in the Democratic Conference to guarantee GENDA’s passage. In fact, the only time GENDA got a committee vote, when Democrats controlled the Senate in 2010, it went down to defeat.
That said, Sklarz agreed that enactment of GENDA would be “important,” and said she looks forward to working with out gay Senator Brad Hoylman on the bill. But as someone who, while a board member at the Pride Agenda, worked closely with the governor on his 2015 transgender rights announcement, Sklarz gives no quarter to anyone who questions its efficacy or permanence.
Among other issues Sklarz emphasized in her interview with Gay City News was transportation — particularly for residents of Maspeth and Middle Village who are isolated from the subway system. While acknowledging the need for measures to curb congestion, particularly in Manhattan, she said imposing surcharges on taxis and Uber-type services was a more appropriate response than placing an $11.25 levy on commuters driving into Midtown and Downtown. Just a matter of days after the interview, the Legislature and Cuomo essentially came to the same conclusion, though most observers concerned about the spiraling congestion crisis doubt that step will, in itself, have sufficient impact to turn the problem around.
Barnwell, in his initial public responses to Sklarz, has pushed back on her critique of his record, suggesting to City & State New York that she had “probably never read” Moya’s bill limiting cooperation with federal immigration efforts and insulted residents who opposed the de Blasio homeless shelter plan as “racists.” He also faulted her for supporting his 2016 opponent Markey, even though she voted against marriage equality, while questioning why he wasn’t more progressive. Sklarz herself acknowledged she was never able to sway Markey on GENDA, taking the assemblymember’s absence on one occasion the measure came up as the only victory she would get on the issue.
Transgender activists have sometimes questioned whether they get the kind of support from the cisgender queer community that trans folks have for decades lent to lesbian and gay causes. Sklarz appears unworried about that.
“I know a lot of people, LGBT and non-LGBT,” she said. “I’ve worked very hard. People respect that. I’ve fought many battles. Won some and lost many. People respect that… People have a pretty good idea of who I am and what I represent as a candidate. And I think they’ll show up.”
If the turnout this past weekend at a Brooklyn Loves Melissa fundraiser at Excelsior in Park Slope is any indication, Sklarz may just be right about folks showing up.