What Went Right

In the wake of Tuesday’s historic vote, the high stakes, high profile, high voltage battle in the LGBT community during the past several weeks over whether the New York State gay rights law could be passed with protections for transgendered people runs the risk of obscuring significant achievements by all parties to the debate. First of all, New York State has now caught up with almost a quarter of its sister states in protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination. As the state that gave birth to the Stonewall Rebellion and was the first to have a gay rights measure introduced in its legislature, it’s about time. And that’s not intended to be harping. This is a bona fide victory and cause for celebration. Untold thousands of gay men and lesbians in New York not previously protected by legislation already enacted in the state’s leading cities now have the protection of the law. This victory comes at an interesting moment in history. Less than two months ago, the Republican Party, even if by a narrow margin, “won” the midterm elections nationwide and set off widespread, and justifiable, speculation that the right wing might feel emboldened by the result. In New York, we re-elected a Republican governor and the State Senate, long a bastion of gay-resistant Republicanism, remained firmly in G.O.P. hands. Yet, final victory in the Senate depended for more than a third of its votes on Republicans and on the eleventh hour efforts of George Pataki. For the past several years, the Empire State Pride Agenda has pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” with Pataki and the state Republican Party––a high risk strategy, to be sure, but also one that was necessary in a state in which the Republicans enjoy a more or less permanent lock on the State Senate. As recently as this summer, the ESPA strategy teetered on bankruptcy, as the state legislature adjourned its regular session without delivering on Pataki’s pledge to get a bill done this year. Gay advocates, disproportionately Democrats because that has historically been pretty much the only game in town, were at first skeptical and then in many cases scathing. ESPA’s endorsement of Pataki, in particular, seemed a gamble, given that the promise of action could not be redeemed until after the governor safely had his reelection behind him. ESPA has also been criticized for not pushing hard enough to broaden SONDA to include protections for transgendered New Yorkers, and the group will certainly be held to its pledge to redress that issue in the very near future. But, we also hope that ESPA will quickly be able to repair its strained relations with its adversaries on the gender question, most prominently out gay Senator Tom Duane. In the final days before the vote, the Pride Agenda faulted Duane for potentially derailing any rights measure, while the Senator rebuked the group for its “bullying.” The truth, however, is that both sides contributed to advancing the issue. The advocacy that Duane, transgender leaders, and other advocates such as Housing Works brought to the question of protecting gender identity and expression produced unprecedented mainstream media attention. The issue was discussed, with varying degrees of sophistication, in The New York Times, the Daily News, Newsday, the New York Observer, and the Albany Times Union, as well as by the usual suspects, the New York Blade and Gay City News. And no advocate, whether a grassroots leader, a community organization, or a sitting senator should be faulted for pushing too hard to win the best victory. Yet, the ferocity of the internecine battle may have obscured realistic expectations, and exaggerated the degree to which it actually would have been possible at this late hour to amend the gay rights bill to add “gender identity or expression” to its language. It would be a shame if the December 17 victory came to be tainted merely as a half-measure. New York State becomes the 13th in the union to protect its gay and lesbian citizens. Another big state, Illinois, seems likely to follow suit early in the New Year. The U.S. Supreme Court, despite its distinctly conservative bias, could well finally right the wrong done in 1986 and end sodomy prohibitions. Earlier this year, gender activists succeeded in adding transgender protections in New York City, and have since followed suit in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In a time when conservative politics hold the edge nationally, all of these victories and potential wins provide needed invigoration for our community and its leaders.