The Fire on the Right Has Cooled

This year the most fractious gay rights debate was within the queer community

Gender rights advocade Josephine Perez confronts anti-SONDA protestor Michael Brenner. Photo by Doug Meszler In 1986, just one day before the City Council in New York City was to vote on a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, opponents of the bill held a rally outside City Hall. Actually, it was more like a hate fest. “Members of the same sex not only should not make love because it is immoral, they cannot make love because it is impossible,” said one Roman Catholic priest. “Sodomy is both hygienically and morally repulsive and it’s because nature has made it that way.” Another speaker said “[T]he real civil rights issue here is not the civil rights of persons who want to openly parade their sexual perversion. The real civil rights issue over here are the civil rights of good and decent and religious and moral people.” The rally was a procession of vitriolic Roman Catholic priests, Orthodox Jews, Salvation Army staffers, politicians, and taxpayers who might have been motivated by some moral view or maybe a prejudice, but were probably also informed by the sure knowledge that the bill would pass the next day. Contrast that with the December 17 State Senate vote that led to the enactment of the Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act (SONDA), a bill that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. State Senator Serphin Maltese, a Queens Republican, was one of only two senators to speak against the bill. Maltese noted that “homosexuality is immoral,” but he was more concerned that the exemptions for owner-occupied homes and religious institutions were not broad enough, an objection echoed by Senator Hugh Farley from Schenectady, the other Republican to speak against the bill. Maltese was worried about how his opposition would be perceived. “I do not think that everyone who opposes this bill can be called a bigot or is necessarily intolerant,” he said. “We who oppose the bill can oppose it in good conscience.” Maltese said that the world had changed since the bill was first introduced in the state legislature 31 years ago, though he did not say if that change was for better or worse. “There has been a definite change inspired by homosexuality,” he said.

When Republican Joe Bruno, the majority leader, spoke in favor of the bill he also took note of the passing of time. “Over these years as I have lived… maybe I’ve gotten more enlightened,” Bruno said. “I am going to vote for this legislation to express tolerance… I would encourage my colleagues to vote in favor. When the vote was taken, the near absence of vocal opposition had stolen any sense of drama from the proceeding. SONDA supporters, at last, provided some excitement when they cheered and applauded, in violation of the posted Senate chamber rules, when the result was announced––34 in favor, 26 against. Thirteen Republicans had joined 21 Democrats to pass the bill. “I think what you saw in the Senate yesterday, in terms of the lack of vitriol… is a manifestation of a political sense that it is no longer acceptable or appropriate to characterize LGBT people in harsh terms and now it is seen, in a way that it wasn’t in the past, as bigotry,” said Ethan Geto, a principal at Geto and deMilly, a lobbying firm, and a paid lobbyist for the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s leading gay political group. The December 17 action was the first time in the bill’s three-decade life that the Senate has voted on the matter. SONDA passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly each year since 1993. The Senate vote resulted from an October deal that had ESPA, SONDA’s champion, swapping an endorsement of Republican Governor George Pataki for the promise of a vote in the Senate after the election. With just two weeks left before the current legislature expired, ESPA scrambled to put together at least 31 votes to pass the bill in the 61-member Senate. And 48 hours before the vote, ESPA had only eight Republicans and 21 Democrats. It took calls from Pataki to Republican senators to gather another five votes to give ESPA its majority. That’s how close it was. Through it all, the real sparring was in the queer community itself, where activists battled over whether protections for the transgender community would be included in SONDA. That fight was nearly as nasty as anything dished out in 1986. The Metropolitan Gender Network (MGN) and the New York Transgender Coalition urged senators to oppose the bill if it did not include transgender protections. “I know it’s a hard–nosed position to take,” said Rusty Mae Moore, an MGN co-chair, before the vote. “We think the gay and lesbian community has screwed us for too long. If you’re going to go around talking about GLBT then you better put the T in your legislation.” On the Senate floor, Senator Thomas K. Duane, Chelsea’s openly gay Democrat, said he had been the victim of a “vicious attack” that charged him with trying to scuttle SONDA because it did not protect the transgendered community. He was referring to ESPA and in his Senate speech he fought back. “The bill we are voting on today excludes those who surely could use its protections most,” Duane said. “There are those small, but powerful groups in the gay community who are willing to turn their backs on the transgendered community.” Duane offered an amendment to SONDA that would have added trans protections by inserting the words “gender identity or expression” in the bill. Nineteen Democrats and no Republicans backed the amendment. Housing Works, an AIDS service organization, ran radio ads in Albany backing transgendered inclusion. The group took a busload of activists up to Albany to lobby on December 17. “It became very clear to me that we really could have gotten through a gender identity and expression amendment to the bill,” said Charles King, co-president of Housing Works. “It didn’t happen because the Pride Agenda not only didn’t help to make that happen, but they actively fought against it. They actively fought against it all the way through to the end.” ESPA countered that amending the bill was never possible and that efforts to do so were mere grandstanding. “The issue was playing with transgendered people and making them think this bill could be amended,” said Matt Foreman, ESPA’s executive director. “Everyone has known for 18 months that the bill could not be amended. This playing around the edges and saying we can amend it that was playing politics with transgendered rights and that was wrong.” The anger continued after SONDA passed. At a press conference following the vote, Foreman thanked a long list of groups and people who had worked to pass the bill. He pointedly did not mention Duane who was standing next to him. The debate, however, took place largely among New York City groups. “Mostly the people I know want the bill to pass and have transgender included later,” said Kathy Ballantine, president of the Oneonta chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. People in Oneonta were barely aware of the debate. “Oneonta is pretty closeted,” Ballantine said. “There isn’t a lot of open discussion about anything.” Ingrid E. Barnes, vice president of the Hudson Valley chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, had a similar view. “I think that that the discussion that was going on in Westchester County was to pass SONDA as it’s written,” she said. “As far as I know there was no similar debate going about transgender inclusion in the bill going on in Westchester County.” One wonders if, just as it took years for SONDA’s time to come, whether the time has yet arrived for transgender inclusion? Much of the gay press and leadership act as if consensus on the issue were a done deal. That may not reflect the views of the rank and file community. “The debate about who is really included in the community is a debate that has raged certainly since Stonewall,” King said. Duane said, in one moment, that the community was largely of one mind. “I think that the majority of gay people understand transgender experience and have embraced the transgendered community, although sadly I think that there is still some bigotry within the gay community directed towards people of transgender experience,” he said. Duane responded differently when he was asked if he was running too far ahead of the gay community. “I think I am, but I don’t care,” he said. “My motivation is not dependent on what the rest of the gay or non-gay community thinks. My motivation is based on the fact that people of transgender experience need civil rights protections.” Foreman pointed to the “hundreds of supportive e-mails” that ESPA has received from across the state since the vote as evidence that the grassroots have spoken.

More from Around NYC