NYAGRA history: 2000

Tom Duane

Tom Duane

Melissa Sklarz

Melissa Sklarz

NYAGRA history: 2000

With the crisis over Chelsea Goodwin’s membership — and that of her partner, Rusty Mae Moore — resolved in December 1999, the new year brought new opportunities to re-establish a firmer foundation for the organization. And so in January 2000, I proposed to the board that we incorporate as a not-for-profit corporation under state law and apply to the Internal Revenue Service for 501(c)(3) status. I argued that NYAGRA was limited in what it could do on a purely volunteer basis and the board accepted my assessment, and so we began a process that would lead us in a direction unanticipated by most of our founding members. The original vision that I had was to make NYAGRA into the transgender community’s Empire State Pride Agenda — a statewide organization with real clout in Albany. It seemed to me obvious that NYAGRA could not hope to challenge the Pride Agenda on transgender inclusion unless we had a substantial membership and funding base. And the organizational weakness of NYAGRA as an infant organization at our first meeting with ESPA in November 1998 was for me incontrovertible evidence of the need to build organizational capacity.

With the approval of the board, I drafted our first grant proposal, which ultimately won NYAGRA $10,000 from the Stonewall Community Foundation. Though small for the leading LGBT organizations in New York, that grant seemed enormous to us as members of an infant organization with no funding. That Stonewall grant also made us the first statewide transgender advocacy organization in the country to secure grant funding. Our second grant from the Paul Rapoport Foundation for $10,000 would further advance our capacity-building, and a third grant for $50,000 from the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation would put us in the position to hire paid staff for the first time.

In retrospect, I now see that my willingness to be a one-woman fundraising and grant-writing committee led to a fundamental weakness in the organization: no other board member actively participated in the effort to secure resources for NYAGRA. True, both David and Melissa joined me for the meeting with a contact at OSI through whom we were able to secure the Soros grant; Gara La Marche was the friend of a friend and colleague of Melissa’s who arranged our lunch meeting with him. And to his credit, David did write the first draft of the grant proposal to OSI, but it was more of an academic treatise than a grant proposal, and I had to completely re-write it. I was the only NYAGRA board member who consistently participated in grant-writing and fundraising efforts on behalf of the organization. And until 2002, when we hired Jeanne Bergman as a grant writer, I had no significant help in that regard, with the sole exception of the November 2001 fundraising event.

My willingness to take on this task was an expression of my commitment to the organization. Because I did not have a full-time job, I had more time (at least in theory) than other board members for organization-building activities such as this; but I recognize in retrospect that my failure to insist on their participation in fundraising and/or grant-writing as a condition of membership of the board was a mistake. My few attempts to propose a ‘give-get’ condition of board membership – considered standard for (c)(3) organizations – were rejected by my board colleagues. Donna led the rejectionists, accusing me of trying to turn the NYAGRA board into a ‘corporate board’ by proposing the insertion into the bylaws of a ‘give-get’ provision – in which a board member is required either to give or to fundraise or grant-write a certain minimum sum per year. $2,000 seemed to me a rather modest minimum for the board of an ostensibly statewide advocacy organization. And ironically enough, Donna would later join the board of another transgender organization with just such a ‘give-get’ rule. But the advice from Jane Schwartz, the executive director of the Rapoport Foundation, that I insist on such a provision, did not reckon with such stiff resistance, and the simple reality was that I did not have a majority of board members willing to accept it. So the task of funding the organization remained mine simply because no one else was willing to help me with it. (David showed some willingness to help but had no background in grant-writing, and as the need to complete his dissertation became increasingly acute, the time that he had available to volunteer for NYAGRA diminished significantly.)

At the same time that I was pressing the HCBC on transgender inclusion in the hate crimes bill, I was also working to ensure full transgender inclusion in the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), legislation intended to prohibit discrimination and harassment of students in public schools throughout the state based on a wide range of characteristics, including race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, and sexual orientation, as well as gender. The lead sponsor of the bill in the New York State Senate was the chamber’s only openly gay member, Sen. Thomas K. Duane (D-29), who was elected to the Senate in 1998 after having served seven years in the New York City Council.

But gender was not defined in the original Dignity bill, and in February 2000, Ross Levi, now the legislative counsel of the Pride Agenda, called me and asked me what NYAGRA and the transgender community would think of a DASA bill without anything more than ‘actual or perceived’ before the list of protected categories. I told him that to my knowledge, the phrase ‘actual or perceived gender’ had never been interpreted by any court in New York or any other state to include all transgendered and gender-variant people in the absence of a definition of gender in the text of the law that included the phrase ‘identity or expression.’ The very same week, I said the same thing to Mark Furnish, Tom Duane’s legislative counsel, and urged him to add a definition of gender with at least identity and expression in it to the DASA bill that he was in the process of reviewing and redrafting. Mark did not seem to understand the need for such a definition and felt that ‘actual or perceived gender’ would be sufficient; but without any experience in drafting transgender-inclusive legislation and without any expertise in transgender law, Mark’s opinion on the matter did not strike me as being in the least bit persuasive; quite the contrary.

I had genuine concern that Tom Duane and his staff would fail to support NYAGRA’s commitment to full transgender inclusion in DASA and in the hate crimes bill, and I shared those concerns with my NYAGRA colleagues through the board listserve. In my messages to the NYAGRA board over the course of the spring and summer of 2000, I laid out a strategy for getting Tom Duane’s support for NYAGRA’s call for inclusion of gender identity and expression in both DASA and the hate crimes bill.

I took for granted that ever member of the NYAGRA board was committed not only to the organization and its legislative agenda but also to the transgender community on whose behalf we advocated. It never occurred to me that a board member would violate the confidentiality of the board list. And so I wrote frankly to board members that I believed that we would have to aggressively pursue Tom Duane’s support for even, if necessary, embarrassing him publicly into doing the right thing.

After consulting the board, I wrote Tom a letter on behalf of NYAGRA requesting his help in persuading the HCBC to support a fully transgender-inclusive draft that would include identity and expression in a definition of gender. Neither Tom nor Andrew Berman (then his chief of staff), who frequently represented Tom at the coalition meetings ever responded to that letter, nor did they ever publicly or privately support our call for a fully transgender-supportive bill. Only later would I learn that Tom and his staff were actively working to undermine our efforts.

That spring, NYAGRA joined ESPA and several other organizations – including the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) – in founding the New York State DASA Coalition. From the beginning, I told the representatives of the coalition member organizations – including Tony O’Rourke, who represented GLSEN in the coalition – that only a definition of gender that included ‘identity or expression’ would be sufficient to make the legislation fully transgender-inclusive.

As the first meetings of the state DASA Coalition got underway, there was indication that the hate crimes bill might move forward.  At a crucial April 2000 meeting of the HCBC, I spoke at length to the need for revising the hate crimes bill to add a definition of gender. Howie Katz was dismissive, not surprising, given his hostility to me and to transgender inclusion in the legislation. Given that Howie (then on staff at the Anti-Defamation League) was the coordinator of the HCBC and had relationships with the lead sponsors of the bill in the Assembly and the Senate, his opposition to inclusion of gender identity and expression in the bill would be a nearly insurmountable impediment to securing that inclusion.

Just before a previous HCBC meeting, Howie had told me to forget about transgender inclusion in state legislation and instead to focus my efforts and NYAGRA’s exclusively on the local level. I had spoken at great length with Tim Sweeney and after much discussion had managed to persuade him to go to Matt Foreman, but while the deputy director was willing to support transgender inclusion in the hate crimes bill, the executive director was not, and without Matt’s support, ESPA’s position could not be changed; and without ESPA’s support, neither ADL nor Howie Katz as coordinator could be pressured to support transgender inclusion in the bill. Earlier, Tim had suggested that Howie facilitate a meeting between me and David Paterson, the leading Democratic sponsor of the bill in the Senate, but Howie had never made any serious effort to organize such a meeting, and in the rush of excitement over the bill’s movement forward in April 2000, Howie dropped even the pretense of approaching the bill’s sponsors about the possibility of adding transgender-inclusive language.

Ironically enough, it was the HCBC member organization representative who had greeted my participation in the coalition with the greatest enthusiasm who was most dismissive of my call for transgender inclusion in the legislation. When I first met Zell Andrews, who at that time was the LGBT community liaison to the Westchester County Executive, she had gone out of her way to make me feel welcome at coalition meetings, seeming genuinely delighted to see a transgender advocacy organization represented in the coalition. But at the April 2000 HCBC meeting, when I argued for transgender inclusion in the bill, Zell cut me off sharply, telling me that transgendered people would simply have to wait their turn; the coalition needed to move forward with the bill as it was written, and if there were any ambiguity about transgender inclusion in the legislation, those could be dealt with after enactment. The almost exaggerated enthusiasm for my participation in the work of the coalition that Zell had shown throughout 1999 now dissipated in a sneering dismissal of the need for explicitly inclusive language. It was revealing confirmation of the utter insincerity of Zell’s professed commitment to transgender inclusion in her work when as executive director of the Loft – the LGBT community center in Westchester County – she supported the lesbians who insisted on excluding transgendered women from a women’s support group that met at the Loft’s space in White Plains. Ultimately, after leaving her position as executive director of the Loft, Zell joined the lesbian separatists who founded a rival community center that openly prided themselves on excluding transgendered women from their women’s groups.

As a result of my interaction with Zell Andrews and others in the HCBC, I realized that one could not rely on the mere assertion of support for transgender inclusion; the proof was in the pudding. Another important lesson that I learned from this whole episode was that a small transgender advocacy organization could not rely on the goodwill of any other organization, even an LGBT organization that claimed to be an ally; direct communication and relations with legislators was crucial for any hope of success in pursuing an organization’s legislative agenda. But I also learned that even in defeat, I could affect the public perception of the legislation.

After the Senate passed the hate crimes bill in June 2000 to much rejoicing by many lesbian and gay activists and community members, Tom Duane and Matt Foreman publicly described the legislation as transgender-inclusive in their comments not only to the gay press but to the mainstream media as well. I thought it was outrageous that a state senator who had refused to lift a finger to move the HCBC toward supporting the addition of transgender-specific language and an executive director of a leading coalition member organization who had actively blocked my efforts to make the bill fully inclusive would seek to take credit for passage of a bill that they inaccurately and disingenuously characterized as fully inclusive. With the support of the board, I publicly challenged Tom and Matt in the pages of the two weekly gay newspapers, Lesbian and Gay New York (LGNY) and the New York Blade News, as well as in the mainstream media.

But Tom Duane seemed determined to cover up his refusal to support transgender inclusion in the hate crimes bill. His chief of staff, Andrew Berman, claimed in an interview with LGNY that Governor Pataki’s legislative counsel, Jill Conviser, had assured Tom’s office that the governor’s legal opinion was that the text of the bill as passed by the Senate in June 2000 and signed into law by the governor in July included all transgendered and gender-variant people. But when Paisley Currah called the governor’s counsel to confirm Andrew’s assertion, Jill Conviser said that the issue had never come up in any of her conversations or meetings with Tom Duane and his staff.

In the end, because of my insistence on an accurate characterization of the text and the terms of the hate crimes bill, both Tom and Matt were forced into what must have been for them a humiliating climb-down from their previous assertion that the legislation was fully transgender-inclusive. As a result of NYAGRA’s public statements on the legislation, many more LGBT activists and community members understood that the new statute was at best ambiguous with regard to the inclusion of transgendered and gender-variant people. To his credit, Matt did support the work that Ross Levi (as ESPA’s legislative counsel) and I did to get Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to include in his guidelines for implementation of the new hate crimes law language that indicated that it was the attorney general’s opinion that the law included transgendered and gender-variant people. But helpful as that legal opinion was, it was not binding on district attorneys throughout the state, who retained discretion as to whether to prosecute hate crimes based on gender identity or expression, because such language was not included in the text of the law that was enacted.

Of course, the issue of transgender inclusion was not the only one that had faced the HCBC. The bill was controversial in communities of color, as many advocates and activists feared that a state hate crimes law based on enhanced penalties would be used disproportionately against men of color. Importantly, NYAGRA’s position had been that regardless of whether or not enhanced penalties hate crimes legislation was effective in addressing hate crimes and regardless of whether or not such laws could be used disproportionately against men of color, if the legislation included everyone else, it should explicitly include transgendered and gender-variant people as well.

Throughout the debate within the HCBC over transgender inclusion and the subsequent public debate in June and July 2000 over whether or not the new hate crimes law did in fact include all transgendered and gender-variant people, I had kept my comments confined to the public policy issues involved. Unfortunately, Tom Duane chose to personalize the debate and to use his protégé, Melissa Sklarz, to prosecute his own agenda. I had known for some time that Melissa was close to Tom’s and to a lesser extent to Christine Quinn, Tom’s chief of staff when he was the Council Member representing the third Councilmanic district and then his successor as Council Member from that district. It was my distinct impression that Melissa had tied her political cart to Tom’s rising star. And I had never done anything to discourage Melissa’s political ambitions or her relationship with Tom. But I had noted with dismay Melissa’s vociferous objections to my aggressively pursuing a strategy for securing Tom’s support for transgender inclusion in the hate crimes bill and DASA during the spring and early summer of 2000. With the rest of the board fully supporting me and my strategy, Melissa was simply out-voted. But when she suggested that the board meet with Tom to discuss how he and NYAGRA could work together following the end of the 2000 legislative session in Albany, I readily agreed to the meeting, along with the rest of my board colleagues.

And so on August 29, Melissa and I, Donna Cartwright, Paisley Currah, and Sophia Pazos represented NYAGRA at a meeting at Tom Duane’s office on Seventh Ave. The night before the meeting, I had received a phone call from Diana Montford, a transgendered member of both the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City (SDNYC) and Gay & Lesbian Independent Democrats (GLID), the latter club being dominated by Tom Duane and Chris Quinn; I invited Diana to join us for the meeting. Along with Tom, Andrew Berman, his chief of staff, and Scott Melvin, his unofficial liaison to the transgender community, joined us in person, and Mark Furnish, his legislative counsel, joined us by speakerphone from Albany. It was not entirely clear at the beginning of the meeting whether Melissa considered herself to be participating as a representative of NYAGRA or as a personal friend and protégé of Tom’s.

After introductions on both sides, NYAGRA board members were taken aback as Tom launched into a bitter tirade against me. His face red with anger, Tom jabbed his finger in my face, saying, “There’s someone who’s been bad-mouthing me all over the transgender community, and her name is Pauline Park!” Tom’s voice rose to a shout as he continued his vicious personal attack on me for well over half an hour, barely tolerating even the briefest interruptions. My NYAGRA colleagues were shocked and insulted by his verbally abusive behavior and Donna and Paisley both challenged Tom, asking him what proof he had that I had been ‘bad-mouthing’ and ‘trashing’ him. At that point, Scott Melvin startled everyone by loudly declaring that someone had been forwarding board e-mail messages from the NYAGRA board listserve to Tom’s office regularly over the course of the previous several months, turning to Melissa to indicate quite clearly that it was she who had been the conduit of those confidential communications.

After the meeting, when her NYAGRA colleagues approached Melissa and demanded to know if it had in fact been she who had forwarded the confidential board e-mail to Tom Duane’s office, Melissa refused to deny it, saying simply, “Everyone knows that I’m close to Tom.” That response and Melissa’s uncomfortable body language were sufficient to persuade everyone present that it had indeed been Melissa who had violated the confidentiality of internal NYAGRA communications. Significantly, during the meeting, Melissa had sat apart from her NYAGRA colleagues, watching the proceedings from a distance. Now that Scott Melvin’s astonishing admission of collusion between Melissa and the senator’s office had shocked NYAGRA board members into a full appreciation of the extent of unethical behavior on the part of both Melissa and Tom, it also became clear that the purpose of the meeting was not for Tom and his staff to reach out to NYAGRA to try to establish a more collaborative relationship with our organization. It became apparent to me at least that Tom and Melissa had intended to use the meeting to isolate me from my board colleagues. I surmised that Tom’s extraordinary outburst, filled with personal invective and vitriol, had been calculated to try to suggest to my board colleagues that I had become a liability to NYAGRA by having thoroughly alienated one of the leading openly gay elected officials in the state; it must have been Tom and Melissa’s expectation that the NYAGRA board members present would be so shocked by my apparent fall from favor with the senator that they would oust me from the board and embrace Melissa’s approach, which was to eschew any public or private challenge to Tom Duane and instead to abandon an aggressive pursuit of transgender inclusion in state legislation.

If that had in fact been their intention, Tom and Melissa seriously miscalculated the effect of their plan. Tom’s unprofessional, rude and verbally abusive had only succeeded in alienating all of my board colleagues and Melissa’s apparent willingness to undermine her own organization and betray the her own community in order to advance her own political career only served to discredit her with her NYAGRA colleagues.

Tom’s abusive behavior and Melissa’s betrayal of the organization prompted Donna, Paisley, Sophia and Diana to cut the meeting short, and we all exited Tom’s office, decamping to a nearby diner to discuss the meeting and its implications for the organization. Speaking of Melissa, Sophia, the most mild-mannered of NYAGRA’s board members, declared loudly as we walked to the diner, “I want that bitch out, and I want her out now!” Paisley, Donna, and Diana shared her sentiment, vying with each other to see who could denounce Melissa the loudest. We all agreed that Melissa would have to be removed from the board, and as soon as Paisley got home, as we had all agreed, she posted a message to the board list stating that the security of the listserve had been breached.

Nebuchadnezzar-like, Melissa could see the veritable writing on the wall, and within minutes of Paisley’s message, Melissa posted her own message announcing her immediate resignation from the board, without explanation. It was clear to all of us that Melissa resigned from the board rather than be voted off. In the face of her imminent removal from the board, Melissa must have decided that it would look better if she could say that she resigned rather than that she was voted out.

Despite Melissa’s profoundly unethical behavior – behavior that no board of directors could or would tolerate – we had decided at the diner that we would not mention the purloined e-mail to Lesbian & Gay New York when we went public with the dispute with Tom. When the article in LGNY appeared, it provoked an outcry in the transgender community and severely embarrassed Tom Duane and his staff. Tom was, after all, one of only two openly gay or lesbian members of the state legislature, and he and Chris Quinn had been aggressively marketing themselves to the transgender community as champions of transgender rights. For Tom to have heaped abuse on one of the leaders of the leading transgender advocacy organization in the state and to for him to be openly and publicly at odds with that organization could only undermine his marketing campaign to the community upon whose behalf NYAGRA advocated. And so he and his aides saw that it had become imperative to seek a rapprochement with me and the NYAGRA board. The intermediaries would be Tim Sweeney of ESPA and Charles King of Housing Works, both of whom had worked closely with Tom over the years, even if relations between Tim and Tom (just as between Tom and Matt Foreman) frequently had been strained.

After innumerable conversations and consultations, the meeting was finally held at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. The director of the Center’s Gender Identity Project, Rosalyne Blumenstein, who had had no involvement with NYAGRA since her departure from the working group in December 1998, attended, along with a number of NYAGRA board members and transgender community notables. Donna Cartwright and Paisley Currah flanked me on each side, taking on the character almost of bodyguards as well as colleagues; both were clearly determined to see Tom apologize forthrightly, but they need not have worried. Tim Sweeney and Charles King had already spoken extensively with Tom as well as with me, and so the whole meeting took on the character of an elaborate set piece, scripted in detail beforehand. Tom would apologize to the NYAGRA board and to me above all for his unacceptable behavior at the August meeting and I and my NYAGRA colleagues would accept his apology and agree to try to forge a more collaborative relationship.

The carefully choreographed dramatic scene de ballet resulted not in a permanent peace between me and Tom, but more of a temporary truce. I suspected at the time that Tom’s self-abasement before me at the October 2000 meeting would only intensify his resentment towards me; after all, despite numerous reports of similarly abusive behavior towards other activists, Tom had never before been forced to apologize in a semi-public fashion as he had on this occasion. August 2000 would not be his last contretemps with me and with NYAGRA.

If the intention behind Tom and Melissa’s ambush had been to remove me from the NYAGRA board, the effect of this whole episode was precisely the opposite: in the wake of the August confrontation meeting and the October apology was to confirm for my NYAGRA colleagues that I had been right about Tom – and about Melissa – all along. My position on the board was now more secure than ever. And with Melissa’s departure, a crisis that could have shattered the organization led everyone to close ranks and present a united front to the world. Unfortunately, the unity and the exceptional esprit de corps that the board enjoyed in the fall of 2000 would not survive our next crisis, which befell us in the summer of 2001.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *