Preparing to Retire, Richard Gottfried Reflects on LGBTQ Rights Work

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Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried will retire at the end of 2022.
Duncan Osborne

In his first year in the State Assembly, Richard Gottfried, who represents Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, and part of Midtown in that body, joined a fellow Democratic assemblymember who then represented Greenwich Village to introduce LGBTQ rights legislation.

“When Bill Passannante introduced the first gay rights bill in 1971, I was one of a small handful of legislators with him at the press conference announcing it,” Gottfried said in an interview outside a Chelsea café. “That press conference was so small that we held it in the legislative library in the capitol, and nobody had to come over and tell us to be quiet.”

While the Republican-controlled Legislature had just enacted a law that legalized abortion in New York and Nelson Rockefeller, the state’s Republican governor, had signed it, there was little interest in protecting what we now call the LGBTQ community. Just two years after the Stonewall riots, the modern movement was in its infancy and activists had just begun to press allies in government for legal protections.

“To me, it didn’t seem like a particularly bold or striking position,” Gottfried said. “It was what I and most people I knew believed in. I don’t know that I had the feeling of being part of a vanguard at the time. Looking back, of course, that’s what we were.”

That legislation was signed into law in 2002 — 31 years after the press conference — when then-Governor George Pataki made a deal with the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), then the state’s LGBTQ lobbying group, to endorse Pataki, a Republican, in his campaign for governor that year. Pataki served from 1995 to 2006. The law generated controversy in the LGBTQ community because it did not include gender identity as a protected class. Gender identity was added to the state’s anti-discrimination law in 2019.

This is a notable feature of what will be Gottfried’s 52-year career in the state Assembly. The 74-year-old often championed causes such as legalizing marijuana or establishing legal protections for the LGBTQ community, including adding gender identity to state law, well before they had broader support and years or decades before they became law. Gottfried has also been an advocate in the movement to decriminalize sex work — an issue that has had a major impact on the LGBTQ community. Since 2019, he has carried legislation that would comprehensively decriminalize sex work in the state. He also co-sponsored the successful legislative effort to repeal a loitering law known as a “Walking While Trans Ban” because authorities often used it to target transgender individuals.

On December 13, Gottfried announced he will retire at the end of 2022.

“I propose to really, truly retire,” he told Gay City News. “I’m not looking for another job. I plan to be able to take one of my Chinese calligraphy or painting classes any day of the week. I hope the world situation enables my wife and I to travel.”

Gottfried has served long enough to see the State Legislature move from being controlled entirely by Republicans — though Republicans in 1971 were a different brand from 2021 Republicans — to now being entirely controlled by Democrats, with a number of those Democrats professing progressive values.

“There are a lot more members of the Legislature who are firmly committed to fighting for what they believe is correct public policy than people give us credit for,” Gottfried said. “That wasn’t so true when I first arrived in ’71, but happily it has been a steady trend. It’s one of the most important things that has changed in the Legislature.”

Gottfried was made the chair of the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Health in 1987. He would continue in that position. In 1987, HIV/AIDS was killing gay men, drug injectors, and other groups. Effective prevention, other than condoms, would not arrive for more than two decades. Effective treatment arrived in the early ’90s. Gottfried credits David Axelrod (no relation to former President Obama’s chief strategist of the same name), who was the state’s health commissioner from 1979 until 1991, with educating him on health policy.

“When I became health chair, I got a very good education in public health principles,” he said. “I felt very strongly that it was my job to stand up for those principles.”

Gottfried defended those “public health principles” when other politicians were pandering. In 1997, Nushawn Williams, a Black man who was HIV positive, was accused of infecting several women who were white. He was convicted on criminal sale of a controlled substance, second degree rape, and two counts of reckless endangerment. He was sentenced to up to 12 years in prison, but as the end of his sentence approached, the Cuomo administration successfully had him civilly committed in 2014. He remains incarcerated in the state’s Central New York Forensic Facility in Marcy.

Gottfried, who authored the 1988 state law that keeps HIV test results confidential, defended that law, saying that confidentially made it possible for Williams and others to get tested without fear of public disclosure. Citing the Williams case, other politicians wanted to overturn that law.

“Fights about that legislation were particularly fierce in the ’90s when there were efforts to have compulsory testing and compulsory disclosure of test results,” he said. “Those were some bitter battles.”

He was also willing to disagree with the leadership in the LGBTQ community when he thought that the community’s grassroots were correct. Gottfried was an early advocate for allowing same-sex couples to marry, but some LGBTQ advocates wanted to avoid raising marriage or adding gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination law out of fear it would diminish support for adding sexual orientation to that law.

“At the time we were getting ready to introduce the marriage bill, as I recall, ESPA, or a lot of its leadership, were opposed to introducing both [the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act] and the marriage bill because they felt it would upset the apple cart of getting [the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act] enacted,” Gottfried said.

The argument that allowing same-sex couples to marry was wrong and would somehow harm marriage was “profoundly degrading” and “as discriminatory as could be,” Gottfried said.

“I don’t ordinarily feel angry about an issue, but I often felt really angry about straight opposition to marriage,” he said. “For about two or three years, advocates for marriage were imploring me to put the bill in and I hesitated doing it partly because so much of the leadership of the gay community was against doing it. It ate away at me to the point where in ’02 I decided I can’t hold off doing this anymore.”

After waiting 31 years to add sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination law and 17 years after that to add gender identity, Gottfried was taken aback when marriage became law in New York in 2011.

“I think the speed of the enactment of marriage really surprised me and a lot of other people,” he said. “That’s partly because I had seen the gay rights bill take almost 30 years to become law.”

As evidenced by the laws that he supported that eventually became law, his advocacy has changed minds in the LGBTQ community and in the State Legislature.

“As a straight observer, there has been a dramatic change in most public attitudes towards the LGBTQ communities,” Gottfried said. “Obviously there is still quite a way to go. My sense, as a straight observer, is things are dramatically different for the better.”