Dispute on Queer Non-Profit Name is Resolved

Daily tabloid informs activists of state’s decision to forgo a lawsuit battle

The New York Department of State has reversed an earlier decision and will allow two gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups to incorporate as non-profit organizations using the term “queer” in their names. Upon re-submitting their applications, Queer Awareness and Queers for Economic Justice expect their applications to be approved by the division in the Department of State responsible for overseeing the incorporations.

In a November report in Gay City News, Benecke said, “Queer is a word I’ve always used.” The gay activist is writing a master’s thesis which he described as an interdisciplinary examination of gay rights on the same-sex marriage debate “bringing together queer theory and public policy.”

Shapiro’s office never returned a phone call seeking the official’s explanation for why Benecke’s initial application was refused.

However, in a June letter to Queer Awareness, Shapiro cited a state law governing the incorporation of groups in which “obscene or indecent” names are prohibited.

Deborah Glick, a lesbian Assembly Member whose district includes Greenwich Village and part of Chelsea, offered a reason why Shapiro refused that application. In a November letter to Daniels, Glick stated: “I am shocked that, based on your office’s antiquated understanding of the word ‘queer,’ a group like ‘Queer Awareness’ will be forced to spend money going to court in order to get non-profit status.”

In a telephone interview, Glick said that while she was aware that Shapiro’s office needs to vet incorporation applications for names that might advocate hate or other illegal purposes, Shapiro’s reason for denying the groups’ initial applications was “mind-boggling.” Shapiro, according to Glick, referred to a Merriam-Webster dictionary to define queer and then determined that the word was a disparaging term.

That Shapiro’s office would reject Queer Awareness’ incorporation application in order to spare its members public disparagement, elicited a chuckle from Benecke, who said he was sure that that was not the reason his application was sidelined. According to Benecke, he learned of the Department of State’s reversal from a New York Post reporter, Kenneth Lovett, who called him last Saturday. Subsequent to that phone call, said Benecke, a lawyer for the department informed him that his application could be re-submitted, but Benecke is still waiting to hear from officials how that process will unfold.

According to Benecke, he and two other young queer activists seek to incorporate as a non-profit then “work against prejudices by seeking to humanize queers.” Benecke said that the group intends to raise funds in order to engage in billboard campaigns as well as place ads in college newspapers that present to young adults alternative images of queer people other than those shown on TV. “We are all not like ‘Queer Eye’ or other shows that reinforce certain stereotypes,” he said.

A Department of State spokesman, Peter Constantakes, said that his agency was never concerned with the intended work of the gay groups. Constantakes attributed his agency’s reversal to an internal Department of State decision, not to any political influence, although he acknowledged that his department’s officials “certainly keep the governor abreast of important decisions.”

Constantakes said that following Gay City News’ November report, many gay groups contacted his office to press for the applications’ approvals. When asked to identify some of these gay organizations, Constantakes was not able to provide their names. “We discussed internally here that the term queer is widely accepted and while offensive to some, it is not offensive to many others,” said Constantakes.

“This is why it is so important to have out lesbian and gay officials,” said State Sen. Tom Duane. “The Department of State did not have the wits to contact a gay or lesbian official to get their advice on this.” Duane authored a letter this past January that he and the five other gay and lesbian elected legislators in the state legislature and City Council sent to Daniels. That letter stated in part: “Like ‘gay,’ ‘queer’ is neither vulgar nor ‘indecent or obscene,’ as Mr. Shapiro writes in the same July 28, 2003 letter, when used in its proper context. For the State to suggest as much borders on offensive and inappropriate.”

A copy of that joint letter was sent to Gov. George Pataki.

Apparently, the State sought to avoid a court case that might have generated significant publicity, although Benecke said that he still has a lawsuit pending in state court until his attorney, Keith Halperin, gets formal notification from the Department of State about approval of the Queer Awareness’ name.

For Daniel O’Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat who is the first gay man elected to the Assembly, the case boiled down to basic principles. “First, there was an important First Amendment component to this matter, and second, the state has no business telling a group what to call itself.”

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