On a Friday afternoon just weeks before the general election for New York City public advocate, incumbent Jumaane Williams put on his “Resist” and “Stay Woke” pins, sat back into his tiny campaign office near City Hall, and addressed the elephant in the room.
“People are confused,” he said. “People don’t even know there’s a race.”
It was just eight months ago when Williams weathered a crowded and contentious nonpartisan special election race to fill the public advocate vacancy left by Letitia James’ election as state attorney general. Yet, thanks to quirky election laws, he has to run for the seat all over again on November 5. Williams faces Staten Island Republican Councilmember Joe Borelli, whose record on LGBTQ issues is dismal.
There is very little attention, however, on a race that many people thought was settled earlier this year.
“We take nothing for granted, so we want to make sure we come in strong,” Williams said.
Williams’ role as public advocate — a post that is first in line should a mayoral vacancy occur — is unique in comparison to his old job in the City Council, where he spent nine years representing the people of Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Marine Park, Flatlands, and Kensington. Known for his fiery activism on a variety of issues, he was viewed by many as a natural fit for a position titled public advocate. His new job, he said, has provided him with the necessary visibility to elevate important causes.
That amplification is necessary for underserved local communities that need an official willing to bring their priorities to public light. In an interview with Gay City News, Williams highlighted LGBTQ issues and discussed how the challenges before the queer community relate to broader hurdles facing all New Yorkers.
Williams consistently stresses the need to hold city law enforcement officers accountable for their actions — in a year when Kawaski Trawick, a gay black man, was fatally shot by police officers in his own home in the Bronx and Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a transgender woman, died in her cell at Rikers Island due to health issues that the city knew about when she was locked up in “restrictive housing.”
Williams was one of the few people to have viewed the body camera footage of the fatal interaction between Trawick and police officers. The NYPD told Gay City News in April that Trawick first called police to say his apartment was on fire, and shortly after that his neighbors also called police. Officers arrived to find him holding a kitchen knife and a broomstick. Police claimed they tased him before he recovered and charged them with a knife, forcing them to shoot him.
Williams believes that interaction was a prime example of why police need to be better equipped to handle such cases.
“I don’t believe our officers are trained for first instinct,” he said. “In the video, it was quite clear that they had every opportunity to come out of that house and instead they stayed in. There was a knife in his kitchen — I don’t know where else you would have a knife than in a kitchen. [The police] just opened the door. Think about how you would feel if somebody opened the door.”
Then acknowledging that he “can’t contemplate what implicit bias does” and that “we all have them,” Williams suggested that better training for police officers’ immediate response instincts “might save your life. We have to talk about it a lot more than we do.”
Polanco’s family, meanwhile, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the city violated her constitutional rights and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Her death added to a growing death toll of transgender women of color nationwide — 21 trans or gender non-conforming women have died violent deaths this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign — and sparked outrage among criminal justice advocates and many in the LGBTQ community.
“With Ms. Polanco, it seems people are talking about it, but I don’t know how much it is ingrained in people’s mind that people are dying simply because they are a part of the trans community,” Williams said.
Polanco’s case represents a prime example of why issues disproportionately facing trans women of color have shot to the forefront of the political discussion this year. The local movement to fully decriminalize sex work emerged in February and blossomed in the months that followed, due to the efforts of DecrimNY, a coalition dedicated to ending all law enforcement efforts aimed at sex work.
Williams, who has previously expressed his approval for the decriminalization of sex work, said in this interview that he has long “been for the legalization of prostitution.” Sex workers locally and nationally, however, have said they specifically favor decriminalization over legalization, which is at least in part because regulatory requirements could create unnecessary hurdles for them to carry out their work.
“I think we’ll have something formally to say on it very soon,” Williams said regarding that distinction.
The public advocate’s views on other criminal justice reform issues are more settled. One day before Williams sat down with Gay City News, the City Council voted to approve the closing of the jails on Rikers Island by 2026 and open four borough-based jails in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan. City lawmakers who voted for the plan framed it as a win for criminal justice reform, but Williams still isn’t completely sold on it.
“We should not say that we closed Rikers, and we should not be saying we ended mass incarceration,” Williams said. “We did neither of those. What we did was put forth a plan that still has to be executed and has to be heavily invested… When we go into the budgeting hearing, we need to have a funding commitment. I think the funding commission recommended $10 billion. We should adhere to that. We have the money. We have to get it done.”
Beyond criminal justice reform, Williams further acknowledged the reality that other issues in the city disadvantage LGBTQ folks — he pointed out that “half the people who are homeless” are queer youth — and he said problems facing people of color in the community are often erased from mainstream discussion.
Contributing to that invisibility is a pattern of financial insecurity facing smaller organizations dedicated to queer people of color. Griot Circle, Gay Men of African Descent, and the Audre Lorde Project have all been stunted or paused due to financial constraints and have only received small pots of temporary, discretionary funding from the City Council.
Williams said the problems facing those organizations are “unfortunate and not surprising,” and he stressed the ripple effect of their limitations, saying the issues those groups take on “tend to be left behind.”
“Even when we talk about addressing HIV/ AIDS, we have done a tremendous job of getting that down, but we still need to talk about how in some communities that’s not where we need to be yet,” he said.
While Williams is discussing queer issues, his opponent has been actively opposing them. Borelli has voted against several LGBTQ-related bills dating back to his time in the State Assembly and especially tends to oppose legislation that benefits trans and gender non-conforming folks. He has dismissed the concerns queer folks have raised about donations by the owners of Chick-fil-A to homophobic and transphobic politicians, calling them “faux outrage of the left.”
Williams contrasted himself with Borelli succinctly, saying, “I’d say I’m a pretty leftist, crazy, former Bernie delegate and Joe Borelli was co-chair of Trump campaign in 2016.”
Williams notably said he is torn between supporting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders again or going with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2020, though he attended Sanders’ Queens rally on October 19.
Williams’ own record on LGBTQ issues has improved in recent years since he came under fire for his former opposition to marriage equality and his abstention from a 2014 bill to allow people to change the gender designation on their birth certificate. In a 2017 interview with Gay City News, he said that his earlier views on LGBTQ issues, which included opposition to same-sex marriage, were influenced by religion. To this day his faith remains deeply important to him, but he has evolved on queer issues. Two years ago, Williams explained that while “Jesus of Nazareth [was] a revolutionary fighting for people who are oppressed, fighting to make sure that people had their voice… religion can be used for some very bad things, for slavery, for homophobia, for a lot of craziness.” Today, he supports marriage equality and has consistently provided funding support to LGBTQ causes as an elected official.
“You always want to give people room to grow and I think I learned a lot, even before I came to the Council,” Williams said. “Even when people slip up, it’s an opportunity to grow. When people are afraid to talk, I don’t think they get out of these situations. Don’t hold it in. I think that’s important to have conversations.”
Above all, Williams emphasized, people should unite to rally around marginalized folks who could find their futures in even greater jeopardy if President Donald Trump is re-elected and Republicans nationwide win at the ballot box next year.
“We’re at a scary time in history now,” he said. “We have to make sure everybody is fully protected. That should be the message everyone is saying. The further you are from being a cisgender straight white man, the more endangered you are.”