New York’s LGBT movement is at a pivotal moment, one of great promise and great peril. It is all the more sobering when you consider how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time.
Last year, the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York State’s LGBT civil rights and political advocacy organization, celebrated our 15th anniversary. When the Pride Agenda was founded 15 years ago, LGBT people were in the political wilderness. We could count on our hands the number of friends we had. There was not a single state law that included LGBT people—well, except for the consensual sodomy law that criminalized the way we show our love for each other. We were thrilled when an elected official met with us in private, and enthusiastically fawned over those who would stand up for us in public.
What a difference 15 years makes. Any public opinion poll will show that the vast majority of Americans of all political backgrounds feel discrimination based on sexual orientation is wrong, and that LGBT families deserve protections just like all others. There are no less than 20 state laws and administrative actions and dozens of local measures across New York State that protect LGBT people and our families. Today we as an LGBT community are sought out by elected officials as a political force to be reckoned with.
But in some ways, I fear we haven’t made a lot of progress. I am not just talking about the gains we have yet to make––an explicit statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and expression, protection for LGBT youth from bias harassment and bullying in schools, funding for our community-based organizations providing health and human services to LGBT New Yorkers, and more rights and responsibilities for our families up to and including the right to marry. Clearly there is a way to go on these and other issues.
What I am talking about is the political timidity of many elected officials around LGBT issues. We seem to have more friends, but those friends often seem as cautious as the politicians of 1990. They come looking for votes and money, and when we are giving out both for free, it seems like we find ourselves with more friends that we can count. But candidates who expect support without having to spend an iota of political capital aren’t the friends we need.
In New York, we have the luxury of choosing between many candidates who want to call themselves our friend. We should be actively supporting only those who will stand with us in very tangible ways because they know it’s the right thing to do even when it might be a little uncomfortable to do so.
Let me be clear: many of our elected officials have stepped up to the plate for us. But we need more to do the same if we intend to win our struggle for equality and justice.
In the last two years, some of the meanest, ugliest homophobes began to wage war against our community. It seemed that every day brought new attacks. There were constitutional amendments and threats of a Defense of Marriage Act. They said we were a threat to the sanctity of marriage, as if we were a people incapable of real love or devoid of a spiritual life. They said we were unfit to parent children. We were vilified.
As New Yorkers, we know what to do when a friend of ours is attacked — we fight back and defend that friend. But, where were our friends? Where were the people we voted for and whose job it is to represent us? Where were the people we counted on to look into those television cameras and say that they knew us and that we were not those things. Would it really be so hard in 2006 to say, “I have LGBT constituents––they are upstanding people, wonderful parents and they don’t deserve to be treated as second-class citizens”?
Most of our friends were silent; maybe they were afraid. All I know for sure is that most of them were nowhere to be found and that some in our community were making excuses for them.
Our friends should be defending us even if it means they get reelected with fewer votes in the next election. Since our annual dinner last fall in New York City, the Pride Agenda has been publicly espousing a policy to put this philosophy into action. I believe that politicians who support a Defense of Marriage Act but otherwise have a good record on LGBT issues might in certain cases deserve our vote, but they don’t deserve our money. How else do we hope to hold our representatives accountable?
The role of the Pride Agenda is to create a climate in New York that makes it uncomfortable for elected officials to support laws that would codify us as second-class citizens. We have to put candidates on notice: The question for an elected official seeking our resources is no longer do you support our right to equality. Three-quarters of New York already say yes to that. The new question is: What specifically will you do to help us get there? And if you can’t be specific, we are not going the extra mile for you.
I challenge you to do the same. If we as LGBT people are going to write checks, go door-to-door, or talk to our friends about candidates running for office, we should expect them to expend some effort on our behalf. Having our elected officials simply show up for a Pride parade is not the courageous or community-validating act it once was; gestures are nice, but when a community is under attack––and make no mistake, our community is under attack in a very real way––specific, concrete actions are required by those who call themselves champions of the LGBT community.
This year, New York will elect a new governor and Legislature. For the next several months, candidates will ask you for your vote and your money. Before you decide to open up your wallet to support a candidate or dedicate your time to get involved in any political race, ask them what they will do to help us win the right to marry, or to fund organizations that provide us with much needed services, or to protect transgendered New Yorkers from discrimination, or to keep LGBT youth safe in our schools. They need to know that our community will hold them accountable for their promises.
In 15 years, the LGBT community has grown to become an important political voice in our state. But we must keep working hard if we are to continue moving forward. Here are some of the things the Pride Agenda is doing to make sure that happens:
Over the past 20 months, we have had 20,000 face-to-face conversations with New Yorkers about our issues.
We’ve built a statewide network of almost 550 religious leaders representing 20 different denominations who are working to support our equality.
We’re building coalitions of labor unions and corporations who share our values of equality and dignity.
This year in the elections, we’re preparing to spend up to $200,000 in Political Action Committee contributions to support our friends.
There is great opportunity and enormous possibility for our community. The stakes have never been higher and it is an exciting time. I truly believe that we are getting closer to the day when we will all enjoy the dignity that comes only with freedom, equality, and justice.
Alan Van Capelle is the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York State’s LGBT civil rights and political advocacy organization.