Why Haven’t Stewart-Cousins, Heastie Moved Walking While Trans Repeal?

While Governor Andrew Cuomo supports the repeal of the "Walking While Trans" ban, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have yet to move the bill.
Flickr/ Governor Andrew Cuomo

The movement to repeal a discriminatory loitering law used to target transgender women of color has generated more than enough support in both houses of the State Legislature to strike it from the books — including bipartisan support and the blessing of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But even as advocates have echoed calls to repeal section 240.37 of the penal law, the lack of movement on that legislation — which reached the Assembly floor last year without getting a vote and stalled in the Senate Codes committee — is increasingly being called out from Albany to Rochester to New York City.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have remained mum about when there will be a vote on the bill in the face of increasing momentum behind the bill, which landed Republican support from upstate Assemblymember Clifford Crouch over the summer. Democrats have little excuse for such an extensive delay at a time when they outright control both houses of the Legislature, a far cry from the days when their priorities would be hobbled by the roadblocks of Senate Republicans and members of the Independent Democratic Conference.

Bill to repeal discriminatory law has the votes to pass, but leaders have failed to act

The bill currently has 36 co-sponsors in the upper house and 78 in the State Assembly, giving the legislation enough votes by that measure alone. It is also possible that additional lawmakers would vote in favor of the legislation without co-sponsoring it.

Advocates huddled yet again on September 22 for another press conference aimed at placing pressure on the pair of legislative leaders to move on the long-awaited legislation. TS Candii, a leading activist and founder of Black Trans Nation, a group dedicated to serving the Black transgender community and survival sex workers, spearheaded the presser on behalf of the Repeal the Walking While Trans Ban coalition.

Out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, the bill’s lead sponsor in the State Senate, was on hand, along with Assembly colleague Amy Paulin, who is leading the Walking While Trans repeal effort in the lower house. Out gay State Assemblymember Harry B. Bronson of Rochester and a handful of other state lawmakers were also in attendance.

Just hours after that press conference, the coalition announced that Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz — a Democrat who previously voted against same-sex marriage — joined on as the 78th co-sponsor in the lower house.

Neither Stewart-Cousins nor Heastie responded to Gay City News’ questions on September 22 asking why the bill has not been brought to a vote, but Paulin told Gay City News that the Assembly has been ready to move the bill since lawmakers made a brief return to Albany for a rare summer session — and that the State Senate is standing in the way.

“When we went back last time, I had asked for this bill to come up for a vote as my top priority bill and I know that the Assembly reached out to the Senate and the word I got back is the Senate has no interest in this bill right now,” Paulin said.

She also noted that “my understanding is that the Assembly will do it if the Senate” also agrees to bring the bill to a vote.

Paulin explained that she and Hoylman have worked in tandem to rally support for the bill among their respective colleagues in an effort to show the Legislature’s leadership that there is “a team interest” in passing the bill.

Hoylman has expressed a sense of confidence that the bill’s passage in the upper house is inevitable, telling Gay City News over the summer that he believes it is a “matter of when we can get it to the floor, not if.” When asked about the fate of the bill, however, he said, “Those are decisions made by the [Senate majority] leader…”

Hoylman is now citing the timing of the legislative session, which only extends from January until June unless pressing needs bring lawmakers back to Albany.

“Obviously with the Legislature on hiatus at the moment, active conversations around bills are not happening very frequently,” Hoylman told Gay City News on September 22. “I hope the bill will be queued up and ready to go when we return to Albany.”

Hoylman said lawmakers could soon return to Albany to take on the budget woes brought on by the lack of federal aid in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and he plans to advocate for the bill if lawmakers do indeed reconvene.

TS Candii of Black Trans Nation is demanding legislative leaders bring the Walking While Trans repeal bill to a vote.Donna Aceto

There are valid reasons why advocates are expressing frustration over the delay in repealing a blatantly discriminatory law that has been used by law enforcement to target people simply for what they are wearing or how they are walking. An eye-popping 91 percent of those arrested under that loitering law two years ago were Black or Latinx and 80 percent were women, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. That same year, 2018, the state saw a 120 percent increase in arrests under that law.

In an interview with Gay City News on September 22, TS Candii noted that while Stewart-Cousins took action to pass other important criminal justice initiatives over the summer and oversaw the passage of LGBTQ rights laws last year, she has not acted with the same sense of urgency when it comes to the plight of Black trans lives.

“You’re just sitting on your hands,” TS Candii said of Stewart-Cousins. “Why is [the loitering law] still on the books?”

TS Candii also suspects that the looming November election could be another reason why the leaders of both houses have not moved on the issue.

The legislative effort represents one piece of a broader, years-long effort by advocates to bring relief to sex workers, particuarly trans women of color. The DecrimNY coalition emerged in February of last year to shine a comprehensive light on the movement to decriminalize sex work, and advocates worked with lawmakers to rally support for a range of legislative priorities ranging from a full sex work decriminalization bill to the “Walking While Trans” repeal effort and a record relief measure for sex trafficking survivors.

Heading into 2020, however, advocates focused much of their attention on the “Walking While Trans” repeal effort, which appeared to have the best chance of passing in the immediate future while advocates continued to educate the general public about the importance of broader decriminalization measures for sex workers.

In a sign of the robust support behind the bill, dozens of organizations penned a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and other top legislative leaders on June 3 asking them to take action on the repeal effort. Among those groups included Black Youth Project 100, Make the Road New York, the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, the Reclaim Pride Coalition, GAPIMNY — Empowering Queer & Trans Asian Pacific Islanders, and VOCAL-NY.

Yet, like last year, the summer months came and went without a vote on the repeal bill — and advocates are tired of waiting.

“Guess what? We got the votes,” TS Candii said. “Bring it to the floor.”

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