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Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Transgender Community Fights for Trans-inclusive SONDA

[ALBANY, NY] - A landmark gay-rights bill, which last month appeared poised for passage when the state Senate returns to Albany on Dec. 17, now faces an uncertain fate.

Since Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, announced in October that he would allow a vote on the Sexual Orientation Nondiscrimination Act, members of New York's transgender community and their supporters have launched an unprecedented campaign against the measure.

They say SONDA doesn't adequately protect some of the state's most marginalized residents, including transsexuals, cross-dressers and effeminate men, and should be amended.

"Right now, SONDA protects one class of folks and leaves out another class that arguably needs more protection," said Michael Kink, legislative counsel of Housing Works Inc., an AIDS advocacy group that is running radio ads in the Capitol Region calling for a transgender amendment.

Bruno has repeatedly said he has no intention of allowing an amended bill sponsored by Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, to come up for a vote, arguing that transgender people are either protected under the existing state Human Rights Law or will be covered by SONDA.

"It's unnecessary," Bruno said. "Our counsels tell us that if this one bill makes it and gets signed by the governor that it covers whatever it is they're asking for."

Members of the transgender community say that theory can only be tested in protracted legal battles, during which they would have no protection outside the few municipalities that have added specific language in anti-discrimination laws to cover them.

The transgender community may have an ally in newly elected Senate Minority Leader David Paterson, D-Manhattan, who said he might not support SONDA without an amendment. Advocates and lawmakers agree if enough of the 25 Senate Democrats follow Paterson's lead, SONDA cannot pass, because there isn't adequate support among the 37 Republicans alone to pass the bill.

"I don't want to see anyone get left out," Paterson said. "I support (SONDA), and I'm for passing it. But how long would it take to get something to protect these citizens?"

The Democratic-controlled Assembly in February passed the unamended version of SONDA, which would protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, education, housing and public accommodations. The Assembly has passed a gay-rights bill every year since 1993.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, has said his members will not return to Albany this year. But advocates say Assembly Democrats have indicated they would be willing to pass a bill that includes protection for transgender people next year.

The question of whether SONDA should be amended has sparked a heated battle in New York's gay and lesbian community, particularly within the state's largest gay-rights group -- Empire State Pride Agenda -- which after fighting for more than three decades has perhaps never been closer to seeing the legislation pass.

Many were angered by what they saw as a political deal in which Empire State Pride Agenda endorsed Republican Gov. George Pataki's successful bid for a third term in return for Bruno's promise to allow SONDA to come up for a vote this year, but not a pledge that it would pass.

"I don't have a problem per se with the Pride Agenda seeing itself as a political prostitute," said Charles King, co-president of Housing Works Inc. "I have a problem with the price that they demanded. At the very least, SONDA should have been an all-inclusive bill."

Both Bruno and Empire State Pride Agenda Executive Director Matt Foreman insisted there was no quid-pro-quo agreement in exchange for the endorsement -- the first for a Republican governor in the group's 12-year history. But insiders said Bruno made it clear he expected the trade-off. Pataki has said he would sign the current version of SONDA.

Foreman on Tuesday said Empire State Pride Agenda supports protecting transgender people, but he maintains an amendment to do that would be a poison pill for conservative Republican senators who now support SONDA.

"The bill before the Senate now is the bill that's been before the Senate for 31 years, everyone knows what it does and doesn't do," Foreman said. "The same can't be said about an amendment, which hasn't been vetted in the same way."

Foreman also expressed concern that SONDA will be relegated to the legislative back burner if it doesn't pass now, overshadowed by the multibillion-dollar fiscal crisis the state is facing next year. Bruno himself confirmed that fear on Tuesday, saying SONDA will likely decrease in significance once this session ends.

But supporters of a transgender amendment say passing SONDA is important to the Senate majority because it would deprive the Democrats of yet another weapon against Republicans come election time.

"This issue isn't going away," King said. "If the Assembly passes a transgender-friendly bill, that will give the Democrats one more club to use to beat up the Republicans."

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