While trenton decides, albany dithers

VOLUME 3, ISSUE 303 | January 15 – 21, 2004

While Trenton Decides, Albany Dithers

As New Jersey enacts its new domestic partnership law, New York State is increasingly falling behind its neighbors in recognizing the rights of lesbian and gay partners. Already, courts in Ontario and Massachusetts have approved same-sex marriage and Vermont pioneered civil unions, which confer on gay and lesbian couples all the rights and responsibilities of married spouses governed by state law.

Two comprehensive measures have been on file in the state legislature in Albany for several years––a civil marriage bill sponsored by state Sen. Tom Duane and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and a domestic partnership measure sponsored by Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Sen. Eric Schneiderman. All four of the legislators are Manhattan Democrats and Duane and Glick are openly gay or lesbian.

But, when asked to assess the legislative prospects this year, Duane, while underscoring his commitment to “full equality,” said that the priorities should be passage of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a measure aimed at curbing bias-based harassment of public school students, and the Gender Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), extending civil rights protections to transgendered New Yorkers. Glick did not respond to a call seeking comment on the domestic partnership measure. And the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), said it was launching a statewide education effort about gay family issues along the lines of the New Jersey town meetings, but was focusing its legislative efforts on a series of smaller measures aimed at redressing specific inequalities regarding hospital visitation, medical decision-making, bereavement leave, control of partner remains, and workers compensation death benefits.

Manhattan Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, also openly gay, is set to introduce a measure requiring insurance carriers who provide employers with spousal benefit plans to also make available domestic partner plans, just as was done in New Jersey.

Ross Levi, ESPA’s director of public policy and governmental affairs, said that the New Jersey action “should put pressure on New York State legislators to recognize what they have not done, that New York is at risk of being a laggard rather than a leader in terms of protecting families.” He said his group has had constructive conversations with staffers who work for Joseph Bruno, who leads the Senate Republican majority, which has traditionally dragged its feet on gay rights measures. At the same time, Levi acknowledged that even initiative from the Democratic leader of the Assembly, Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan, is not a done deal, and that the group will keep up pressure on both parties.

Duane said his ultimate goal is marriage––either through the legislative route or through the courts––and that an effort focused on a domestic partner bill risks being overtaken by the rush of events, particularly court challenges arising from couples who wed in Massachusetts and seek recognition of their marriage in New York. While he fully supports the incremental measures introduced by Assembly Democrats and being pushed by ESPA, he said political momentum, not to mention moral obligation, make DASA and GENDA the priorities.

“It was a terrible mistake that people of transgender experience were not included in [the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act] that we need to rectify,” Duane said.

He also suggested that Bruno is more receptive to the transgender-inclusive language in both of those bills than previously believed, and that DASA could pass this year.

“I have raised transgender issues with Sen. Bruno and based on favorable discussions with senators on both sides of the aisle, I am optimistic about the student bill,” Duane said.

Significantly, however, neither Bruno’s office nor Silver’s responded to requests for comment on the prospects for progress on partnership measures this year.

––Paul Schindler

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