No Budget, But Maybe Some Action

Senate, Assembly could take action on school bullying in Albany next week

With a state budget now a record three and a half months late, the New York Senate and Assembly return to Albany next week after a break that began in late June for a brief session likely to last several days.

Nobody is expecting the famously dysfunctional legislative body to restore fiscal accountability to our state government just yet—that may not happen until August or even later—but several issues of concern to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community are in the air.

The first issue concerns the possibility that the Republican-controlled Senate and the Assembly, dominated to an even greater degree by Democrats, may be close to a compromise on a measure to battle bullying and harassment in the public schools and provide specific protections to students based on criteria including race, religion, sexual orientation, and perhaps even gender identity and expression.

The Assembly has several times, by wide margins, approved the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which its proponents say provides strong safeguards against at school harassment and includes specific language regarding sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, have offered an alternative, the Schools as Safe Harbors Act, which Assembly Democrats complain provides neither sufficient protections and enforcement mechanisms nor specific language about gender identity.

The DASA measure approved by the Assembly is similar to a city ordinance passed late last month by the City Council, but on which Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not taken a firm public position.

The Dignity Coalition, a statewide group of advocates that includes the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and leading transgender rights organizations and activists, have held out for several years for a final Albany bill that includes specific protections for transgender and gender-variant New Yorkers.

Presumably eager to demonstrate that Albany can at least come to an agreement on opposing bullying in the schools, the office of Sen. Joseph Bruno, the Republican leader of the Senate, has reached out to DASA advocates to try to craft language acceptable both to the LGBT community and to Republicans not eager to engage the issue of transgender rights. Though no formal language is not yet on the table, the thrust of the Bruno proposal, conveyed by Mike Fox, his chief of staff, is to substitute specific mention of “gender identity or expression,” with a more ambiguous phrase such as “actual or perceived identity or expression of gender, race, ethnicity…”

According to Pauline Park, co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), Fox, who offered his thoughts to transgender advocates directly in a June 10 conference call, aims to prove that the Senate Republicans will address gender rights concerns while giving their most conservative members “plausible deniability.”

That causes concerns for both Park and Lisa Mottet, a transgender law expert at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

“Ultimately, if language is used to hide transgender people in the bill, the schools won’t see the bill as trans-inclusive,” Mottet said. Both she and Park pointed out that the language formulation proposed, though also being considered in a federal bullying measure and a Florida statute, has never been tested in the courts.

“We think we have reached point in the movement where we should have clear language for everybody,” Mottet said. “Transgender people should not be left alone fighting it out in the courts.”

Other trans activists, however, seem prepared to accept the Bruno language.

“To my mind, that language is not perfect and it could be better,” said Paisley Currah, the executive director of both the Transgender Law and Policy Institute and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY. “It would better if the legislation made clear that all gender-variant kids are included. If this were only a trans bill, I might hold out. But with all the kids out there needing protection, I won’t hold out for perfect language. I think it is clear enough.”

Paisley, however, did echo Park’s concern that none of the proposals under discussion include the right of individuals to take private legal action under the law. Republicans are reportedly loathe to offer such a provision under any compromise. Ross Levi, ESPA’s director of public policy and governmental affairs, said that issue was probably “not a deal breaker” since the Dignity Coalition never made it a priority.

Melissa Sklarz, vice president of Manhattan’s Gay and Lesbian Democrats, agreed with Currah that the language compromise was acceptable.

“I thought it was movement from a house that never moves,” she said of the Senate proposal.

According to Levi, a formal proposal from Bruno on the compromise could come as early as this week, making final action next week a possibility, “more than a long shot,” in his estimation.

But according to Steve Kaufman, a top aide to Steve Sanders, the Democratic head of the Assembly’s education committee, Fox has not yet come to the Assembly with any proposed compromise.

“I don’t see how,” Kaufman said, when asked whether final action was doable next week. “We’ve been working on this for a year and Steve Sanders is not inclined to jump at the first sign of interest from the Republicans.”

For his part, Levi denies Park’s assertion that ESPA and GLSEN have pressured transgender activists to sign onto the Fox language.

“It doesn’t make sense to take a position on language that is not yet formal,” Levi said. “You just end up negotiating with yourself that way.”

Neither GLSEN nor Bruno’s office returned calls seeking comment.

Even as action on student harassment in Albany remains a possibility for next week, it seems increasingly safe to bet that another issue of concern to the gay community—a state Defense of Marriage Act—is off the table despite the best efforts of the state’s Conservative Party.

In a July 2 letter to Bruno, Conservative Party chief Michael Long demanded to know by July 14 what action the Senate planned to take on a host of issues dear to right wing activists in New York. The state DOMA was number two on Long’s list, and his letter contained a veiled threat that if Bruno’s answers were not satisfactory, the Conservative Party would mount multiple third party challenges to Republican incumbents. The Conservatives have until Monday to file their candidate roster, but have already cited three races, two in Nassau and one upstate, where they might seek to do mischief.

Bruno has indicated he will not respond to Long publicly, but in a July 13 press conference in Albany, the Senate leader said, “I’m not the least bit concerned. We will be in the majority when we get back together after November.”

Gay advocates said they took that statement to mean, in part, that Bruno has no intention of raising the divisive issue of DOMA in this session of the Legislature. Sen. Tom Duane, the gay Chelsea Democrat, had told Gay City News a month ago that the anti-gay marriage effort was “dead.´

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