State Senate Move Wins Praise, Garners Suspicions

A break to a seven-year logjam on efforts to pass a comprehensive public school anti-bullying la

By: PAUL SCHINDLER | The Log Cabin Republicans, the national LGBT group with chapters in the state and the city, are winning praise from New York's chief gay lobby group for their work in moving the State Senate majority to embrace the inclusion of gender identity and expression protections in a new proposal to break a seven-year logjam on efforts to pass a comprehensive public school anti-bullying law.

“Absolutely, they have been working this issue hard,” said Ross Levi, director of public policy and education for the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA).

However, key Assembly Democrats – including Speaker Sheldon Silver and Daniel O'Donnell, lead sponsor of a similar measure repeatedly passed in that chamber – voiced strong doubts this week that any new law will result this year, with O'Donnell asking whether the GOP is a “willing partner or a flirting partner” on getting the bill done.

And the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the nation's leading advocacy group for the rights and protections of LGBT students, is similarly dubious.

“It's like the new 'X-Files' movie,” said Kevin Jennings, GLSEN's executive director. “I want to believe. But there's an element of it that feels like a death-bed conversion that would make them seem more friendly than they've been for the last eight years.”

In Jennings' view, the test is not introducing the bill, or even passing the Senate version promptly, but rather working out differences with the Democratic-controlled Assembly version in time to have the bill signed by Governor David Paterson prior to the November elections.

“If they just pass it next week, and it goes no further, I will know they found the switch but have not seen the light,” Jennings said. “I know what election-year posturing looks like. They know that the intolerance they've propagated for years doesn't sell in New York State anymore.”

The new bill, the Safe Schools for All Students Act, introduced by the Republican majority, but with no individual sponsor's name attached, would implement measures to protect students from bullying, cyber-bullying, discrimination, and harassment by fellow students and school employees. Protections would be provided based on a host of categories including race, religion, and sex, and also sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

For the past seven years, the Assembly has passed a bullying measure, the Dignity for All Students Act, sponsored by O'Donnell, an out gay Upper West Side Democrat who last year steered the marriage equality bill through that chamber. The Democrats have insisted from the start that protections for transgendered and gender-variant youth – through the use of the term “gender identity and expression” – be included, an element of the legislation Republicans in the Senate to date have been unwilling to accept.

Earlier GOP versions of student bullying legislation included protections based on sexual orientation, but this is the first time in New York history that Albany Republicans have introduced a bill with language regarding gender identity and expression.

Both Patrick Sammon, president of the national Log Cabin Republicans, and Jeff Cook, who is a legislative consultant to the group who works on New York issues, expressed the hope that the Republicans could bring the bill to their “conference” as early as next week when the Legislature reconvenes at the governor's behest to deal with the looming budget crisis. The majority in each house of the Legislature typically conferences a bill just prior to bringing it to the floor for a vote, assuming the measure enjoys the support of that party's members.

“There is the possibility of getting this conferenced next week,” Cook told Gay City News. “We think it makes a lot of sense to protect kids across the state, and politically it makes sense for the Republicans to signal their willingness to govern in an inclusive manner.”

He noted that in prior years Senate Republicans had stepped up to support important gay and lesbian agenda items, including the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, or SONDA, in 2002, and the state hate crimes law, in 2000, a measure that protected against anti-gay violence, but offered no explicit protection to transgendered New Yorkers. The bullying bill, Cook explained, would be the Senate Republicans' one deliverable to the LGBT community in the 2007-8 session of the Legislature.

In addition to offering accolades to the Log Cabin group for their work on the bill, ESPA's Levi also signaled that it was that group that was acting as point man on the legislation. When asked whether he thought the majority would conference the measure as early as next week, Levi responded, “Log Cabin is the one to know that.”

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Majority Leader Dean Skelos, asked the same question, responded, “We're focused on the governor's call to come back next week to work on the budget. We don't have an agenda for next week. We will be conferencing, but we don't know the topics at this point.”

Asked about the timing of the new bill – which took Democrats and even GLSEN, a lead player in the Dignity Coalition working to enact bullying legislation in New York, by surprise – Reif said he would call back with additional information, but had not followed up as of press time.

“The bill popped up out of the blue,” said Mark Furnish, a top aide to Senator Tom Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat who has worked with O'Donnell on the Assembly-passed version of bullying legislation.

Even as Furnish acknowledged that the proposal is “a step in the right direction,” and lauded the GOP for introducing cyber-bullying to the discussion for the first time, he also said, ” It means they are running scared, using this as cover, because they can't justify to themselves moving on marriage.”

In Furnish's view, the timing is curious. On June 10, Duane held a hearing on the Dignity bill, but the regular legislative session ended later that month without the Senate negotiating on moving the Assembly measure. He conceded that the Republicans may be planning a quick vote on their version, but said nobody from the GOP side had been in touch with Duane yet, and that the Senate Democrats had not had sufficient time to vet the Republican proposal.

Furnish also noted that bills without sponsors, introduced by Republicans into the Rules Committee, are often ones no GOP senator wants to attach their name to – such as tax increases or the marriage equality bill, the latter of which has gone nowhere in the Senate.

But Log Cabin's Sammon suggested that the lack of specific sponsorship signaled that the majority as a whole was prepared to stand behind the bill, giving him hope it would move quickly.

Whatever happens in the Senate, there is still a need to reconcile two bills with different provisions, and O'Donnell, who made the point that an anti-bullying law can easily be enacted by the Senate approving his bill, said nobody, either from the Senate or from among the advocates, had yet been in touch with him about starting negotiations.

“Are they serious, flirting, or just playing games?,” O'Donnell asked of the Senate Republicans. “Usually, if they were serious, there would be discussions before a bill was brought. The smarter way is to engage in conversations before introducing a bill.”

Emphasizing that he had made the Dignity bill his top legislative priority this year, O'Donnell said that Speaker Silver's effort to include the measure into the mix of items horse-traded at the end of the session in June was rebuffed by the Senate leadership.

Interviewed on August 13, Silver said he had not previously heard of the new Republican bill. He added that given the budget focus of next week's special legislative session, he “would be surprised” if the calendar were opened up to anything beyond the fiscal crisis.

Although the Log Cabin Republicans have a far rosier view of the Senate majority's intentions on the bullying question – pointing to the new bill as the latest in an incremental evolution of the state party on LGBT issues that began with the 2000 hate crimes law – they readily acknowledge the political realities facing the GOP in November's elections. Republicans hold just a two-vote margin in the 62-member Senate, down considerably in recent years, and with shifting demographics and the party's troubles nationally this could be the year Democrats finally realize their goal of gaining control of both houses of the Legislature, not to mention already having the governorship.

Sammon spoke of the importance of New York Republicans showing an inclusive face, “especially in a climate like this year's,” and Cook echoed the same sentiment. Cook said his group moved this year to “fill a void” in bridging the gap between advocates of bullying legislation and the Senate leadership, an implicit acknowledgement that the Pride Agenda, which has made electing a Democratic majority in the Senate a key priority this year, has sidelined itself with the state GOP. Faced with years of intransigence on bullying, marriage equality, and a gender expression nondiscrimination bill, ESPA, after a long period of engaging the Republicans in the Senate, concluded that flipping that chamber was the only hope for progress.

Cook, however, was quick to give the Pride Agenda credit on the bullying battle.

“There is no doubt that year in and year out the education done by the Pride Agenda on this issue has been critical,” he said.

Even if they are not front and center on the latest Albany maneuvers on school harassment, ESPA is clearly keeping close tabs on the matter. Levi explained that, prior to the new GOP bill, there were six major areas of difference between the Democrats and Republicans on the approach to bullying. In addition to finally adding gender identity and expression as a protected category, the GOP added staff harassment to the prohibition on bullying by students, a teacher training component, a broadened definition of what constitutes verbal harassment, and an explicit ban on discrimination in addition to harassment.

The only point on which the Republicans have not yielded is in their insistence that the bill specifically rule out any new right to sue under the law. The Assembly bill is silent on this point, but given that there is a clear federal right for students to sue if schools negligently or deliberately fail to protect them, Levi explained, this last point may well not prove a deal-breaker.

“I don't think there is any question but that the new version out of the Senate is a vast improvement over their previous proposals,” Levi said, in a statement similar to what GLSEN's Jennings conceded despite his political suspicions.

Furnish, in Duane's office, noted that some punitive aspects of the Senate bill may yet prove troublesome for Democrats, arguing that the Dignity measure relies more on prevention than retribution. Still, he conceded that it was too early for firm conclusions and that Democrats would have to have more discussions with advocates before delivering a verdict on this new opening from the Republican side of the aisle.