As the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) prepares to lead roughly 700 LGBT advocates to the State Capitol in Albany for the group’s annual Equality and Justice Day lobbying effort on April 30, supporters of a decade-old transgender civil rights measure are stepping up the push to secure Senate passage this year.
“The bill is on path to pass the Assembly again, which is great,” Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat who represents portions of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, said of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) on which he is the lead sponsor. “And I am hopeful we can get a vote in the Senate this year. We have a different Senate, so we have a chance of putting people on the line to either stand with a basic civil rights issue or not.”
That “different Senate” is one where the Republicans, who to date have declined to allow a vote, are holding on to leadership of the chamber only with the participation of four members elected as Democrats — the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) — who have all endorsed GENDA.
Diane Savino, an IDC member who represents portions of Staten Island and Brooklyn, has been a leading advocate for the bill, just as she was with the successful Marriage Equality Act several years ago. ESPA has met with IDC members including its leader, Jeffrey Klein, whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.
Advocates agree that the IDC could play the pivotal role in getting GENDA to the Senate floor for a vote.
“IDC is the essential element of the GENDA formula,” said Melissa Sklarz, a transgender activist who is president of the Stonewall Democrats of New York City.
“We think it’s great that all four members of the IDC have been co-sponsors of GENDA now or in the past,” said Carmelita Cruz, the state director of advocacy and organizing for Housing Works, an AIDS group. “We would like them to be our power brokers to get a vote on the floor.”
Senate floor votes are controlled by the majority, which is why advocates look to Klein, Savino, and the other two IDC members, who give the Republicans the ability to lead the Senate despite holding only 30 of 63 seats.
The closest GENDA ever got to being given a vote came in 2010, when the Democrats controlled the Senate and the bill was taken up by the Judiciary Committee. Despite what advocates characterized as a deal to allow the measure to move forward, the committee’s Republicans unanimously joined with Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz, Sr., a longtime antagonist of the LGBT community, to table the measure.
Despite the traditional resistance from Republicans on LGBT issues, three of the most important advances in New York — on marriage equality, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, and a gay-inclusive hate crimes law — all happened while the GOP controlled the Senate. For that reason, advocates are certainly not ignoring the Senate’s Republican leadership. ESPA’s executive director, Nathan Schaefer, emphasized that one of the lobbying meetings scheduled for next week is with Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican. Skelos presided over his conference when it agreed to a vote on gay marriage in June 2011.
Legislative meetings in Albany are only part of the push to get GENDA over the finish line — an effort in which ESPA, Housing Works, and the New York Civil Liberties Union play prime roles among a broad coalition of labor, faith, women’s, business, and law enforcement leaders.
Working with SKDKnickerbocker, a strategic communications firm that was in the thick of the gay marriage campaign, the Pride Agenda has launched a $250,000 media drive that includes print, radio, and Internet ads focused on legislators in Albany as well as key target districts around the state. Transgender New Yorkers who have written about their life experiences through ESPA’s Trans Scribe program will take part in an Internet video project to translate their written work for viewing.
Housing Works has launched an online story project similar to Trans Scribe dubbed I Am GENDA.
“This is a different level of engagement, of making GENDA a priority than we’ve seen in the past,” Squadron said, in a sentiment echoed by Sklarz.
“I think there’s been a wonderful concerted effort,” she said. “Mass media. Enlarging the transgender rights coalition. Getting everyone on the same page with the talking points.”
Looking forward to the Albany lobbying effort, Sklarz added, “Next week should be very successful.”
One significant new element in the GENDA push is the participation of leading law enforcement officials, who are pushing back against emotional warnings that transgender rights protections could somehow imperil the public safety of women in places like restrooms and locker rooms. At a GENDA forum hosted by Squadron and Assembly sponsor Dick Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, last fall, James Sheppard, the chief of police in Rochester, and Steven Krokoff, his counterpart in Albany, testified that local protections there have enhanced public safety and law enforcement.
Squadron said that faced with such evidence, GENDA opponents can only continue pressing public safety alarms by being “willfully ignorant.”
Sklarz had difficulty masking the fact that she is vexed about having to address unfounded and inflammatory charges about an issue of straight-up civil rights protection, but acknowledged that the willingness of those in law enforcement to stand with GENDA advocates could prove helpful.
Asked to predict the bill’s road going forward, Squadron — after noting that 60 percent of senators represent districts where local transgender rights ordinances are in place and 80 percent of New Yorkers support GENDA — offered two rules of thumb: “the sooner the better” and “everything usually gets done at the end of session” in June.
Housing Works is demanding a GENDA vote in this session, win or lose. When the Pride Agenda made a similar push for a gay marriage vote in 2009, the effort fell short 38-24 and garnered some good amount of criticism. Just 18 months later, however, marriage equality was law in New York State.
According to Schaefer, ESPA also aims to lobby both houses of the Legislature next week on funding for homeless and runaway LGBT youth and for other health and social service needs and to end the state’s ban on gestational surrogacy contracts and ease the procedures for second-parent adoption. For more information on Equality & Justice Day, visit prideagenda.org.