Looking for Initiative

Will the state Assembly advance same-sex partner issues?

As New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arrived toward the end of a legislative reception that the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) hosted this week in Albany, the group’s executive director, Alan Van Capelle, stepped forward to introduce himself.

“We’ve met before,” the Lower East Side Democrat said as he grasped Van Capelle’s hand.

In fact, just moments before Silver’s arrival, Van Capelle had been talking about the access he’s had to Albany leaders, specifically the Assembly speaker and state Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, since he took the helm at ESPA last May.

“I have personally met with the majority leader about a half a dozen times,” Van Capelle told Gay City News. “I am still hopeful that I will get a meeting with the Speaker’s office.”

Asked to clarify whether in fact he had not met at all with the Assembly’s Democratic leader, Van Capelle responded, “Not once since I started. I am hopeful that maybe that will change this session.”

Given the history of how gay-related measures have advanced through the state legislature, the disparity between Van Capelle’s experience with Republican Bruno and with Democrat Silver is remarkable––and may not bode well for the prospects for quick action in New York State on partner and family recognition issues that have surged to the fore in gay and lesbian politics nationwide after the stunning advances on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and Canada.

Questioned at the Pride Agenda reception January 20 about the wide range of same-sex partnership issues currently facing the legislature, Silver told Gay City News, “Truthfully, it took us 12 years to do a bias crime bill in New York. I think it’s going to take a while to get some of our Republican colleagues in the Senate to go beyond what we’ve done so far. Certainly we have stood out for civil rights and basically this is nothing more than that. As I say, I’d like to see the Senate go along with it.”

Until the summer of 2000, gay and lesbian rights were quite simply a dead letter in the Republican-controlled Senate. Throughout the 1990s, the Democratic-controlled Assembly repeatedly passed both a hate crimes measure, which included specific protections against bias attacks motivated by sexual orientation, and a gay civil rights law, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA). Bruno, exercising his prerogative as Senate leader, blocked any floor vote on either measure until he finally relented on the hate crimes bill, which passed easily in June 2000 with the support of majorities on both the Democratic and Republican side. Two and a half years later, in December 2002, Bruno allowed a vote on SONDA, which also passed, with significant, though not majority, Republican support.

The willingness of Republicans to vote for gay rights and of Bruno to meet with the Pride Agenda does not, however, alter the fundamental dynamics of civil rights efforts at the state capitol. Advocates continue to look to the Assembly to take the initiative, and the Democrats there remain at the forefront of efforts to expand the frontier of civil rights protections and social service benefits for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

Six years ago, the Assembly led the way in providing money from its discretionary budget to fund non-HIV health and social services for LGBT New Yorkers. Since then, Republican Governor George Pataki has contributed money from his executive budget for such programs as well. In total, more than $12.5 million has been made available to about 50 programs statewide.

Similarly, the Assembly has overwhelmingly passed the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which provides public school students with protection from bias harassment and violence motivated by a variety of factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity. In response, the Senate has passed the Schools as Safe Harbors Act, which advocates view as a weaker measure and which does not include protections based on gender identity and expression. The state of play on the student harassment issue this year will focus on whether Bruno is willing to countenance addition of the gender language in the bill’s Senate version.

But, in the 13 months since Pataki signed SONDA, the debate over LGBT issues has been overtaken by a host of new concerns scarcely imagined during most of the 31 years in which the civil rights law was debated. In the wake of SONDA’s passage, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and out gay Senator Tom Duane have proposed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which corrects what they view as SONDA’s key failing––the lack of specific protections for transgendered New Yorkers. The two have also stepped up efforts to focus debate on a measure to grant same-sex couples equal marriage rights.

Meanwhile, Senator Eric Schneiderman and out lesbian Assemblymember Deborah Glick, also Manhattan Democrats, are signaling that they will up the ante on their proposal to enact a comprehensive domestic partnership statute that falls short of full civil marriage.

A variety of measures less ambitious than either civil marriage or domestic partnership––to provide gay and lesbian couples equity on issues such as hospital visitation, partner medical decision-making, control of the remains of a deceased partner, bereavement leave, and access to insurance, domestic partner benefits, and partner death benefits from the crime victims and workers compensation boards and for uniformed officers killed in the line of duty––have also been proposed in the legislature.

At the present time, neither the gender expression nor any of the partnership or marriage measures has passed either house of the legislature, and nobody at the January 20 ESPA reception was willing to flatly predict success on any this year. Every legislator questioned, however, acknowledged either directly or implicitly that success would have to come first in the Assembly.

Whether Silver is prepared to push on any of these measures, however, remains unclear. After his statement at the Pride Agenda reception that he would like “to see the Senate go along with” the Assembly, the speaker was asked whether he sees the value in following in the tradition of hate crimes and SONDA by passing measures to put pressure on the other chamber.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Silver replied. “It’s early in the session. We’ll have to see what they’ll react to. At this point, I’m not sure it puts any pressure on them.”

Asked his view of the Republican Senate’s receptivity to issues of gay partnership and family issues, Silver at first indicated that he relies on the Pride Agenda for that sort of political intelligence, before saying, “I don’t have a sense at this point.”

For his part, Bruno, who also attended the ESPA reception, steered clear of specifics as well. Asked to respond to New Jersey’s enactment earlier this month of a domestic partnership law that provides some benefits to same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples over 62, the Senate leader said the issues addressed by that legislation “are very much open to discussion. We’ve already done a lot of things as it relates to domestic partners as you know. So we’re going to continue the discussions.”

Bruno did not specify what benefits––beyond basic civil rights protections––he believed the legislature had already provided domestic partners.

On the question of the Senate accepting language protecting gender expression and identity, both in DASA and in GENDA, Bruno said, “We’re having very productive and constructive conversations with the leadership of the Pride Agenda and I expect that that’s going to continue. And, hopefully, we will be able to get something done that will be important to a large constituency.”

Despite the positive noises coming from the legislative leadership, the rank and file in both the Senate and Assembly were more cautious. Only on the student harassment measure was anyone willing to predict outright victory.

“I am very optimistic about DASA,” Duane told Gay City News in an interview last week. “I have raised transgender issues with Sen. Bruno and based on favorable discussions with senators on both sides of the aisle, I am optimistic about the student bill.”

Duane, who named DASA and GENDA as his two major LGBT priorities this year, said the gender expression rights measure “would be the real battleground.” He urged the Assembly to move forward on passing the bill to give him leverage in the Senate.

Schneiderman echoed Duane’s assessment that DASA was the most likely success this year, and that GENDA would be “tough.”

Moonhawk River Stone, an Albany psychotherapist on the ESPA board and also a leader of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, said that NYAGRA has tried to get a meeting with Bruno on GENDA, but so far has not been successful.

On the Assembly side, GENDA cleared one committee last year, but died in the Rules Committee. According to Connie Ress, who works for sponsor Gottfried, the Manhattan Democrat will push to get the bill onto the floor this year.

Schneiderman also argued that the Senate, where he is sponsor of the domestic partnership on which Glick leads in the Assembly, is not yet prepared to move on family and partner recognition issues.

“Not this year,” he said. “We will continue to push [the partnership measure.] Unfortunately, I think that a lot of my colleagues in the Senate still don’t get it. We have to raise some consciousness and maybe replace some people.”

Like Duane on GENDA, Schneiderman counseled action in the Assembly first.

“That’s always the pattern here,” he said. “The Assembly puts the bill on the table and then we can identify the source of the problem over in the Senate.”

Asked about the domestic partnership bill’s prospects in the Assembly, Glick said she hopes to get the measure to the floor for a vote this year, but “if that’s not possible, I’d certainly like to have a committee hearing.”

Manhattan Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, also openly gay, is set to introduce a measure requiring insurance carriers who provide employers with spousal benefit plans to also make available domestic partner plans, just as was done in the New Jersey law. He said that it was unlikely that the Assembly would act on the measure until there was a Republican sponsor in the Senate willing to work the bill there.

“The speaker is committed to being helpful to creating equality for gays and lesbians in New York State,” he said. “But he is interested in doing things that the Senate will take up and the governor might sign. I don’t know if the Speaker wants or my colleagues want to do a bill that is spinning our wheels.”

Two long-time supporters of the community in the Assembly, Democrats Scott Stringer of Manhattan and Joan Millman of Brooklyn, offered their views on whether Silver would advance the ball this year.

“I think the speaker is ready and I think our conference is ready,” Stringer said. “We’ve got a great of legislators who want to be in synch with their constituents. I don’t think it’s a question of courage any more.”

“I would like to say yes, definitively, that we are going to have movement on some of those issues that some of us have been pushing for,” Millman said. “So far, I can’t tell you. I haven’t heard that much yet, though the fact that Jersey did something promoted some discussion.”

The Pride Agenda is due to announce a statewide series of town meetings to begin its public education effort on family issues and marriage in February.

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