On GENDA, We Need to Hear from Senator Klein and from Governor Cuomo

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Among the 21 states in the union that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, only three fail to extend those protections based on gender identity and expression as well.

New York is one of the three.

That fact alone should be enough to pull off of the bench the man who three summers ago declared, “This state, when it is at its finest, is a beacon for social justice. The legacy of this state was that we were the progressive capital of the nation.

That assertion was made by Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 24, 2011, one of his finest moments — when he signed the Marriage Equality Act, on which he staked so much political capital during his first year in office.

To his credit, Cuomo, during his campaign the year before, made clear he supported the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which would correct the omission of transgender civil rights protections from the 2002 New York State gay rights law. However, according to the Empire State Pride Agenda, though the governor repeated that commitment in 2011, he has not spoken out on the issue since then.

We need to hear from Cuomo again. As Melissa Sklarz, a longtime transgender rights and Democratic political activist, put it in comments this week to Gay City News, “The leader of the New York political system is the governor. He creates the agenda and sets the tone.”

According to the governor’s political supporters, Cuomo’s contribution goes far beyond that — he is, they say, the indispensible force in clearing the clogged arteries of Albany’s dysfunctional political system.

Put a different way, we need to hear from Cuomo because we are not hearing from the Senate leadership. In coming weeks, the Democratic-controlled Assembly will pass GENDA for the seventh time. The Senate has only once taken action on the bill, when the Judiciary Committee in 2010, in a farce of a hearing, refused to approve it for further consideration.

A bill doesn’t get a vote on the Senate floor unless the majority party allows it. Republicans will tell you they have presided over the LGBT community’s greatest victories — on gay rights in 2002, on marriage in 2011. But the truth is that those wins only came after enormous pressure from advocates and Democratic senators to allow a simple up or down vote.

We should be better positioned under the current Senate leadership than we were under past GOP-run Senates. The Republicans hold the majority only with the support of a rump faction of Democrats who style themselves the Independent Democratic Conference. That caucus’ members all say they support GENDA.

But the silence from their leader, Jeff Klein, who represents portions of the Bronx and Westchester, has been deafening on GENDA during the 2013 and 2014 sessions. The bill’s sponsor, Democrat Daniel Squadron, can’t get a commitment from Klein that he’ll insist on a vote and neither can the advocates.

Cuomo may not be speaking up publicly, but his office does return press calls about GENDA. Klein’s office doesn’t.

So we need to hear from Jeff Klein as to where he and his four IDC colleagues stand on delivering justice to the transgender community. Sklarz, in her comments to me, noted that “political movement costs political capital.” But the risks here are nothing compared to those involved in New York’s pioneering forward position on marriage equality three years ago, when we were only the sixth state to the table. The vast majority of New Yorkers support these vital civil rights protections, and 18 states have shown us the way. We can’t say for certain whether there are 32 votes to pass the bill, but it’s unlikely we’ll know unless we try — and trying means a vote of the full Senate.

The governor, too, should see how little political capital he is being asked to risk this time around — and how urgently his help is needed. If we are going to get a vote on GENDA, we need to hear either from Senator Klein or, failing that, from Governor Cuomo. The opportunity to lead is there for the picking.