SONDA Leads to New Battles
In wake of victory, trans-activists push GENDA
[NEW YORK] - Back in 1971, two New York State Assemblymen from Manhattan introduced a gay-rights bill. On Dec. 17, nearly 39 years later, Gov. George Pataki signed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act into law.
The process was long, convoluted and produced a good deal of heat on both sides of the issue. Even with passage, the arguments have not died down; on the contrary, a last-minute amendment to include transgenders in the bill's language has caused a very public rift between the state's highest-ranking out-gay politician and its most influential lobbying group.
When State Sen. Tom Duane, who represents much of the West Side of Manhattan, including heavily gay neighborhoods like Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen, tried to amend SONDA, he infuriated Matt Foreman, who heads the Empire State Pride Agenda. According to Duane, Foreman shut him out of a meeting with State Sen. Joseph Bruno, the head of the Senate's Republican majority.
Political insiders, however, maintain that Duane was left out of the meeting because he would not commit to supporting SONDA if transgenders were not included. If the only out-gay senator would not commit to the bill, insider asked, why should Bruno? After all, he had put his own political life on the line when he guaranteed that SONDA would reach the Senate floor if ESPA supported Pataki's re-election.
ESPA did, in fact, endorse Pataki, a highly controversial move in a state where gay voters are concentrated in liberal, heavily Democratic New York City. Duane came out very vocally against the endorsement. Some saw his amendment as an attempt to sabotage ESPA's work on SONDA, which Duane denied.
Bruno kept his promise: He called the Senate back for an extraordinary end-of-the-year session during which only two bills were considered, one of them SONDA. (The other was a seemingly unassailable bill slightly lowering the blood-alcohol limit for driving while intoxicated.)
Surprisingly, considering the heavy lobbying against the bill from the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church -- both extremely influential in the Republican-dominated Senate -- the final floor debate proved tame. Few senators spoke against it. In the end, the transgender amendment introduced by Duane was soundly defeated. But SONDA passed 34-26, a surprisingly wide margin for a bill that had been held up so long in committee.
GENDA: the next fight
The Republican governor apparently made several last-minute phone calls and some political arm-twisting to persuade members of his party to vote for SONDA. He signed the bill immediately after passage.
The bill will extend protection across the state. Although many localities already had such protections, millions more are covered by the law, which includes employment and housing. Many considered the legislature's inability to pass SONDA an embarrassment in such a purportedly progressive state. Even Bruno admitted that he needed to be "enlightened" on the issue.
Newspapers around the state lauded the bill's passage. From Buffalo to Long Island, Ithaca to New York City, editorials seemed unanimous in their praise for the legislature and disgust at local politicians who voted no.
With the passage of SONDA, many are now turning their attention to transgender rights. While Riki Wilchins, executive director of Gender PAC, a national lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., applauded ESPA for getting SONDA passed, he cautioned, "We contend the bill would have been better protection if it included gender-expression identity."
Cases currently moving through the courts may rule on whether transsexuals are protected from discrimination by sexual-orientation statutes such as SONDA. By forcing the Senate to vote down his amendment, Duane may have forced the courts to decide that they are not protected, according to he Log Cabin Club of New York.
For its part, ESPA is attempting to forge a coalition with other minorities to force the state legislature to pass an omnibus human-rights law that will include transgenders. Some transgendered activists, however, want to pursue a standalone bill, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA.
Foreman says he will support GENDA. But, he added, "given our experience with hate crimes and SONDA, it's much easier to advance a bill with a broad coalition behind you."
Just this year, New York City passed a transgender-rights bill. But that would be a harder feat in Albany, Foreman said. Bringing groups of blacks, Hispanics, Jews and others to work for a revamping of existing laws would be much more difficult for politicians to oppose.
"No one in Albany disputes that the human-rights law needs to be revamped," Foreman said. "But my experience in Albany is that the legislature is more apt to win on our issues if there are lot of other issues on the table at the same time."
For now, however, Foreman is basking in a long-awaited victory. When Foreman entered a briefing room after the vote, he was given a thunderous ovation that dwarfed that given to Bruno, Duane and David Paterson, the Senate's Democratic leader, who also fought hard for the bill. ESPA and its predecessor organization were, in fact, originally founded to fight for a SONDA-like statewide bill. It took 39 years, but it has finally reached its goal.