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New York Passes Anti-gay Discrimination Bill without Trans-inclusion

[ALBANY, NY] - Just hours after state senators passed a bill that would outlaw discrimination against homosexuals in New York state, Republican Gov. George Pataki signed the bill into law.

The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) passed the house by a 34-26 vote. The state Assembly approved the measure in January -- as it has annually since 1993.

Pataki received an endorsement for re-election from Empire Pride Agenda, the largest gay and lesbian group in the state, after the Republican state Senate said in October it would take up the bias bill.

SONDA will protect people from abuse, harassment and discrimination in employment, housing, education and public services based on their sexual preference. It will become law 30 days after gaining the governor's signature, making New York the 13th state to prohibit anti- gay bias.

"This lays the foundation for winning full equality under the law in areas such as taxation, protections for gay youth and transgender people and recognition of our families," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.

A proposed amendment Tuesday to add protections for so-called transgenders -- ranging from cross-dressers to people undergoing sex- change procedures -- failed 19-41.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, voted for the bill, as did 12 other Republican senators. Twenty-one Democrats also voted yes.

"The time has come to move on in our lives put this behind us," he said before the vote. "People can live their lives the way they see fit."

"The bill itself is a step in the wrong direction," countered Sen. Serphin Maltese, R-Queens. "We cannot legislate politeness ... the way people feel. That comes through mutual respect."

Cheers and applause from bill advocates sitting in the Senate gallery greeted the announcement of the final vote total Tuesday.

Usually, bills that make it onto the floor are predestined to pass in the Senate, where Republicans dominate 37-24 and the GOP controls the flow of legislation. The fate of SONDA, however, remained unclear until the voting began Tuesday.

Michael Brennan, a Rochester resident who came to Albany to protest SONDA, carried a sign outside the Capitol that read "God's plan is marriage between husband and wife."

"This is leading down the road to loss of free speech. Eventually, my convictions will become a hate crime," he said, before he and transgender advocates began arguing. "It will interfere with my ability to teach my grandchildren my values."

SONDA opponents included both religious organizations and transgenders, who argued a non-discrimination bill was also needed to protect them.

"I think it would be an absolute and utter tragedy if this passes" without protecting transgender rights, said Charles King, co- president of Housing Works.

New York City resident Melissa Sklarz accused Empire State Pride Agenda of abandoning transgenders. "They have closed the door on us time and time again," she said.

They preferred that SONDA be voted down without the transgender amendment proposed by Sen. Thomas Duane, the chamber's only openly gay member.

"We are fighting among ourselves," said the Manhattan Democrat. "I promise the transgender community I'm not going to forget. The battle for that begins right away."

Foreman estimated that 75 percent of transgender people in the state live in New York City -- where a city law already protects them against discrimination.

"It's totally unfair for all these downstate people to be saying, 'All you upstate gays can wait'" for an anti-gay discrimination bill, said Foreman.

He said establishment of protection against discrimination for homosexuals was a historic step for gays and lesbians rights advocates, who plan to propose a sweeping change of the state's human rights laws next year.

"You really can't be advancing things like domestic partnership rights when, if you go to your employer and say, 'I have a domestic partner,' they can fire you because you're gay," Foreman said.

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