LGBT rights advocates and elected officials gathered outside City Hall on March 12 to press the case for enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) in Albany this spring.
The press conference, organized by the Empire State Pride Agenda, and featuring several out gay members of the City Council as well as City Comptroller Scott Stringer, highlighted what have become familiar benchmarks in the long-stalled effort to win statewide civil rights protections for transgender and other gender-nonconforming New Yorkers.
More than 12 years have passed since the state enacted the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, a gay rights measure where transgender protections were purposely excluded in what Councilmember Corey Johnson, an out gay Chelsea Democrat, call a “deal” that “was wrong.”
While major cities and some counties in the state — including, locally, New York City and Suffolk and Westchester Counties — do provide transgender rights protections, about 40 percent of the state’s population live in areas with no such ordinances.
According to the Pride Agenda, one third of all transgender New Yorkers have experienced homelessness in their life, two thirds have faced job discrimination, and almost 30 percent have suffered a serious physical or sexual assault.
The measure, which has been passed repeatedly by the Democratic-controlled Assembly in recent years, has never gotten a floor vote in the Senate. Yet, even as the bill’s two sponsors — Chelsea Democratic Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and Lower Manhattan/ Brownstone Brooklyn Democratic Senator Daniel Squadron — appeared in Albany the same day with Pride Agenda executive director Nathan Schaefer to talk about GENDA, no Senate staffer attended the City Hall event. Squadron’s only press release that day involved the demand that the Chinese Lunar New Year be made a public school holiday.
To date, GENDA has failed to move in the Senate due to Republican intransigence. With the GOP currently in control of the Senate, the best leverage activists have is the five-member rump caucus of Independent Democrats, who are in a power sharing arrangement of sorts with the Republicans. Asked whether it had won any commitment from that group’s leader, Jeff Klein of the Bronx, or any other members to press for the bill, Matthew McMorrow, the Pride Agenda’s director of government affairs, said, “They’re all fully supportive. We are in conversations with them. They have made it a priority. We’re just trying to get it higher on their priority list.”
One activist involved in the campaign to pass GENDA told Gay City News that the bill’s supporters were disappointed that the Assembly did not put it forward in the current horse trading surrounding the state budget.
McMorrow noted that Governor Andrew Cuomo, for the first time, pushed for GENDA’s passage in his annual State of the State speech. Johnson, however, pressed Cuomo for more, saying, “It’s time, I hope, for the governor to show some leadership.”
Jason Cianciotto, the director of public affairs and policy at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, injected a new argument into the discussion of the transgender rights bill. Noting the disproportionately high rate of HIV infection among transgender women of color, he said, “Governor Andrew Cuomo, thank you for committing to sign GENDA if it comes to your desk. We know you understand that without GENDA, your Plan to End AIDS by 2020 will not be realized.”
In a follow-up email, Cianciotto elaborated, writing, “Any plan to end AIDS, from New York to California, needs to address the root causes — the socio-economic, cultural, institutional, political, and legal drivers of the epidemic — that concentrate HIV infection among young transgender people of color.”
Melissa Sklarz, a transgender rights advocate just named co-chair of the Pride Agenda Foundation, sounded a bit weary at how long the fight has gone on but also determined to raise the community’s sights.
“I’m no longer willing to fight just for equality and justice,” she said. “I want to see transgender faces, hear transgender voices. Hire transgender people.”
The Pride Agenda is planning its annual Equality & Justice lobbying day in Albany for April 28.