When gays and lesbians won civil rights in New York in 2002 with the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), that legislation ignored a two-year effort by trans activists and some State Senate Democrats to broaden its language to include protections based on gender identity and expression.
So, in December 2002, trans people and the leadership of the AIDS services group Housing Works created GENDA. No one knew how to pass gender identity-only legislation, but a small group of people were willing to try.
After five years of effort and an awkward reconciliation with the Empire State Pride Agenda, the gay and lesbian lobby group that steered SONDA to victory, the GENDA bill first passed the State Assembly in 2007, in a push led by Manhattan Democrats Dick Gottfried, Deborah Glick, and Daniel O’Donnell. The measure passed again two years later, in 2009, and once more this year.
With the election of a Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, in 2006, there was hope among trans people that their time had come. When the Democrats became the majority in the Senate in 2009, those hopes grew larger.
But the bill was badly handled last year by John Sampson, then the Senate majority leader, in his own Judiciary Committee and failed to move to the floor for a vote. Both he and Tom Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat who has spearheaded all the LGBT legislation in the Senate, said certain Republicans had promised to vote yes, but reneged under the glare of the media.
Trans people were furious because everyone knew that marriage equality was on the horizon for 2011, and it would be very hard for trans people to be heard in a marriage year.
So, while there is a revolution for gays and lesbians in New York that reverberates across America and around the world, trans people in New York State, outside of New York City, Suffolk County, Ithaca, and few upstate counties can still be fired because of their gender identity or expression, can still be arrested if accused of using an incorrect bathroom or locker room, can be still be thrown out of their homes if a landlord is offended by witnessing a sometimes slow process of gender transition, and can still be forced to be mis-gendered by doctors and hospitals.
For transgender and transsexual people in New York, the expanding freedoms afforded gays and lesbians still feel far away.
In the early 2000s, gay lobby leaders told trans people to focus on city and county legislation, and then work up to the state level. Since none of us had any experience in lobbying for stand-alone transgender causes, that approach seemed to make sense. In fact, in New York City, Local Law 3, giving transgender people equal protection in our city, was signed into law by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in early 2003, after winning overwhelming support in the City Council. It was a wonderful moment.
Ironically, the legal protections we have in the city make us less effective as lobbyists for GENDA. Senators want to hear from their own constituents, not from activists who live in New York City.
In the State Senate, the only New York City members not in favor of GENDA are the same ones who voted no on marriage –– Democrat Reuben Diaz, Sr., of the Bronx, and Republicans Martin Golden of Brooklyn and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island. Carl Kruger, a Brooklyn Democrat, is an unknown. For the most part, though, city transgender people have done their job.
We need to hear voices from Long Island, the Hudson Valley, the state’s Southern Tier, the North Country, and Western New York, because the senators who represent those areas are currently the solid no votes on trans civil rights.
Still, the votes required for passage exist. As of the beginning of last month, there were 32 yes votes, counted informally, out of 62 Senators –– a majority, and more votes than marriage equality had when Governor Andrew Cuomo and advocates decided to press for a vote on that issue on June 13.
But the majority leader, Long Island Republican Dean Skelos, controls the agenda in the Senate, so GENDA was parked in the Rules Committee, which he controls, where it sat until time ran out on 2011’s regular session.
Opponents of this bill feel no particular pressure about GENDA, since they rarely see trans lobbyists and 2011 was, in an event, very focused on marriage. Some senators previously unattuned to LGBT rights are willing to take risks on gay and lesbian families in their districts and even gay and lesbian relatives in their families, but they find it more difficult to relate to transgender people. The willingness of gay and lesbian New Yorkers to come out and be visible has been a great strength for their community; the trans journey is much more difficult and fraught with obvious danger.
For transgender people, the GENDA campaign for 2012 starts right now. The same coalition that believes in the rights of gays and lesbians believes in the rights of transgender people to exist, to be educated, to work, and to have lives as happy New Yorkers. But we need more trans people out talking to legislators and educating them. We need to try to duplicate the effort for marriage, putting aside past differences and rivalries to come together with a singular voice.
But as trans activists mobilize, will the progressive and queer rights movements move on? Will focus shift instead to labor issues, or women’s rights, or housing –– questions that affect broad swaths of New York’s population?
We have repeatedly been told to elect more progressive state senators. We did that in 2006 and 2008, and yet we still failed. How many progressive senators are needed to pass trans rights in New York?
2012 will mark a decade in the struggle to enact transgender civil rights in New York State separate from the earlier push to include trans protections in gay rights legislation. Most of the people who started the effort have moved on with their lives. The younger activists are uncomfortable with the bill; they feel that it will not help everybody and, by incorporating the harsher penalties in the state’s hate crimes law, even hurt some. Many transsexuals live hidden, stealth lives, and are not willing to risk the safe, stable lives that they have created.
Next year also includes a presidential election, as well as races for all federal and state legislative seats. It will be a very busy political cycle.
And so we plan and meet and ponder and wonder, and look to our friends and colleagues and the new kids. We hope for the best. Soon, we still say, our time will come.
Melissa Sklarz is director of the New York Trans Rights Organization (NYTRO). "