BY PAUL SCHINDLER | It’s been more than a decade since New York State enacted a gay rights law –– one that failed, however, to provide protections based on gender identity and expression as well.
But, now, with the State Legislature in the final few days of its 2013 regular session, the Empire State Pride Agenda, the advocacy and lobby group leading the push for civil rights protections for the transgender community, says that there is “clear momentum” toward enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.
And in a June 18 press release, ESPA pointed to a new letter of support for GENDA that New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly sent to the State Senate leadership.
GENDA has been passed repeatedly by the Assembly since 2008, but has never received a vote in the Senate.
In his letter, Kelly addressed criticism from opponents of transgender civil rights protections that such laws create public safety problems in locations such as bathrooms and locker rooms –– despite the lack of evidence that such issues have arisen anywhere.
“In 2002, the New York City Human Rights Law was amended by Local Law 3. Among other things, Local Law 3 protects against bias in areas including public accommodations,” Kelly said. “I am not aware of any increase in crimes attributable to the passage of Local Law 3 in New York City.”
Kelly is the seventh leading law enforcement official in the state to make that point. At a legislative hearing in Lower Manhattan last fall, James Sheppard, the chief of police in Rochester, and Steven Krokoff, his counterpart in Albany, aggressively knocked down what has been an emotional rallying cry on the right.
The Pride Agenda’s release also cited recent endorsements of the bill from statewide officials, including US Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and newspapers from the New York Times to the Glen Falls Post Star.
ESPA credited City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the commissioner’s LGBT advisory panel with winning Kelly’s support for GENDA.
The closest GENDA ever came to reaching the full Senate was in 2010, when the Democrats were in the majority and the Judiciary Committee took up the bill, only to see if fall short when Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz, Sr., an implacable foe of the LGBT community, joined every committee Republican to block it from getting any further consideration.
This year, the Senate is under the control of a group made up of 30 Republicans, a freshman Democrat from Brooklyn, and another four Democrats banded together under the title of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). Though some Republicans are said to favor GENDA, it is unclear if their leader, Dean Skelos from Nassau County, is willing to ask the full GOP conference to do what it did two years ago on marriage equality — allow a floor vote even with most of its members opposed to the issue.
The bill’s supporters have looked to the IDC –– all of whom have endorsed GENDA –– to help them push the measure, but one advocate, who insisted on anonymity, told Gay City News that when they pressed Diane Savino, an IDC member, on the issue at a recent gathering, she responded, “You’ll have to speak to the governor.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo has long been on record in support of GENDA, but has not made the bill a public priority in his legislative agenda. One key Cuomo initiative in the Legislature’s waning days has been a women’s equality measure, which hit a brick wall over Senate Republican resistance to its pro-choice provisions.
The apparent failure of the women's equality measure is one of the factors that has put the IDC leader, Jeff Klein, who represents portions of the Bronx and Westchester County, under considerable pressure to prove his faction has succeeded in steering its much larger governing partner to embrace any progressive legislation.
In an email statement to Gay City News several weeks ago, Senator Daniel Squadron, a Lower Manhattan/ Brooklyn Democrat who is GENDA’s lead sponsor, highlighted the pivotal role Klein and his three colleagues play.
“Let me be clear, the GOP and IDC control the floor,” Squadron wrote. “We believe the votes are there for GENDA and that the Senate leadership must not block a vote. To do so would be unconscionable."
In response to Kelly’s endorsement, Squadron’s said, “Commissioner Kelly's support underscores what we already know: law enforcement around the state agree that transgender equality laws make their communities safer. As the Albany and Rochester police chiefs testified at our forum last fall, these protections improve their ability to provide for the health and safety of their citizens. It's time for the Senate leadership to bring GENDA to a vote before the end of session.”
The Pride Agenda did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill’s status in Albany.