Republican City Councilmember Steven Matteo of Staten Island has managed to climb the ranks of New York City politics with the help of his colleagues — and he may still be on the way up — despite demonstrating a transphobic bias not often seen in the local political arena.
The 42-year-old second-term lawmaker, who became minority leader in 2015 and is running for borough president in 2021, has sought to stymie queer rights in a myriad of ways: He has opposed numerous bills related to transgender and gender nonconforming people in the city, broke with dozens of his City Council colleagues in 2014 when he refused to boycott the St. Patrick’s Day Parade’s for its ban — since lifted, thanks to the boycott — on LGBTQ groups, and last year lobbied Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to make an exception to a city and state ban on non-essential publicly-funded travel to North Carolina after that state passed a “bathroom bill” prohibiting trans folks from using publicly-accessible facilities aligned with their gender identity.
Matteo’s anti-LGBTQ actions have largely gone unchecked — with out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson last year appointing him chair of the Committee on Standards and Ethics.
The Staten Island Republican’s role as that committee’s chair became problematic when Matteo was in the position of overseeing an Ethics Committee probe earlier this year into homophobic Bronx Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr.’s inflammatory assertion that the “homosexual community” controls the city’s lawmaking body.
In April, two months after the Pentecostal minister’s comments surfaced, Matteo ignored Gay City News’ requests for details about the status of that investigation. Nothing has appeared to emerge from that probe, and Diaz and Matteo share a track record of opposing LGBTQ rights.
Matteo’s history of rejecting trans rights legislation dates back to at least June of 2016 when he joined fellow Staten Island Councilmember Joseph Borelli as the only lawmakers to vote against a bill requiring that all publicly-available single-occupant bathrooms in the city be designated as gender-neutral.
Matteo’s opposition to the rights of marginalized groups only broadened from there. In 2017, he voted against a Council resolution calling on the State Education Department to create a task force to create core content that is LGBTQ-affirming and challenges racism, ableism, and sexism.
Later that year, he voted against legislation requiring the Mayor’s Office of Operations to review forms at city agencies to determine whether they should be updated to include voluntary questions about people’s gender pronouns.
Then, in 2018, Matteo opposed legislation allowing folks to alter their birth certificates to reflect their gender identity. That historic piece of transgender rights legislation gave folks the opportunity to change their gender designation to male, female, or X, signifying a non-binary identity.
Last year, Matteo was one of several lawmakers who mounted an effort to push the mayor and governor to make an exception to the ban on government travel to North Carolina. He sought the waivers to allow a local school sports team to travel to the Tar Heel State, telling the Staten Island Advance that students shouldn’t be “casualties of politics.” Borelli and State Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, both of whom also boast strongly anti-LGBTQ records, joined him in that effort.
Matteo did not respond to questions for this story, with calls to his office going unreturned.
The Staten Island lawmaker’s transphobic record coincides with a wave of unprecedented violence against transgender folks — especially trans women of color — around the nation. There have been more than a dozen documented cases of black trans women suffering violent death this year, and locally, a trans woman, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, died in city custody in June after she was thrown into restrictive housing at Rikers Island. She succumbed to seizures caused by epilepsy, despite jail officials having already known about her health conditions.
Matteo, meanwhile, has a decent chance at bringing his bigotry with him to Borough Hall. He has $126,510 on hand, following his most recent filing last month in his bid for borough president. If elected, he would replace his old boss, James Oddo, for whom he served as chief of staff during the beep’s time in the City Council.
Matteo is clearly no political outsider His rise has been aided by support from others in city political circles, including lawmakers who have tried to put on an LGBTQ-friendly face in public. Queens Councilmember Eric Ulrich, who paints himself as a moderate Republican, was in the midst of touting his pro-LGBTQ stances during the city public advocate race earlier this year when he gave Matteo’s campaign a $175 donation. It was the second time Ulrich pumped cash into Matteo’s war chest, after previously doing so in 2017.
Matteo’s opposition to equality for LGBTQ people is in line with the leader of his party, Donald Trump. The president has spent his time in office eradicating LGBTQ rights by imposing a ban on trans service members, pushing rules allowing hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies to refuse care and coverage for trans patients, and reversing existing policies protecting transgender school children, among other actions.
But Matteo is hardly alone in a City Council that appears deeply blue on the surface but has also been stained by a handful of homophobes and transphobes who have lurked in City Hall for years. Gay City News has reported extensively on the current crop of anti-LGBTQ councilmembers, from Borelli and Diaz to Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx and Chaim Deutsch of Brooklyn.
All four of those lawmakers, as well as Matteo, are term limited from seeking reelection to their current posts in 2021.