Bare-Knuckles Gender Rights Strategy
By Duncan Osborne
Gay City News
28 June 2002
In an effort to stop the enactment of the state Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act because it does not contain language protecting transgender people, an employee of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy proposed hiring a private investigator to unearth compromising information on Joe Grabarz, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda and a leading proponent of the bill, that could be used to force him to resign.
“The guy is a bigot and now the most powerful person at ESPA,” wrote Jamie Hunter, the NYAGRA program coordinator, in a December 2001 memo obtained by Gay City News. “One way or another, we have to take him down. Get proof of his bigotry, embezzlement of funds, or something to force the ESPA board to fire him and replace him with someone more T-friendly. This is sort of a long term, unspoken project which might at some point utilize a private investigator or other means.”
The comments on Grabarz appeared under the heading “covert operations” in the five-page memo that detailed the strategy for passing a transgender-inclusive SONDA.
ESPA is seen by some in the transgender community as hindering their inclusion in the bill and Grabarz, in particular, is perceived as hostile to the transgender community. ESPA has said that changing the language would derail the 31-year effort to pass the bill which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.
SONDA was expected to pass this legislative session after Republican Governor George Pataki signaled his support, but the session finished up most of its work last week without the Republican-controlled state Senate taking any action. The Assembly had already passed the bill.
In March, NYAGRA split into two factions that are fighting over ownership of the group’s name and financial assets. Among the issues that brought on the split was how aggressive the group should be in opposing SONDA and ESPA, a debate that led to Hunter’s dismissal by the original board of NYAGRA. Hunter remains a significant player in one of the two NYAGRA factions. The memo was given to Gay City News by a Hunter opponent.
The memo, which describes an “anti-SONDA/ESPA campaign,” noted that “three legislative experts (Mark Hayes, Senator Tom, Keith Cylar) suggested that for the long term welfare of every TG person in the state, Joe has to go.”
Two of the three denied saying that.
“Tom never said any of this,” said Frances Miller, chief of staff for openly gay State Senator Thomas K. Duane. “I don’t know why she would put this in a memo… He would never say something like that or imply something like that.”
Cylar, a co-executive director at Housing Works, the AIDS housing group, denied making the comments through his secretary.
Hayes, a Housing Works lobbyist in Albany, agreed with the memo.
“I think I’m being paraphrased, but certainly the sentiment is accurate,” Hayes said. “I just think that Grabarz is transphobic.”
Hayes said the memo overstated Grabarz’s influence in that he could not stop SONDA from being amended to include protections for transgender people.
“He would remain as sort of an annoyance, but I certainly wouldn’t give him that kind of clout,” Hayes said.
Grabarz characterized the memo as “the blatherings of a raving lunatic” and said his organization was working with the transgender community.
“There are more credible leaders within the transgender community that we are happy to work with,” he said.
“The Pride Agenda’s commitment to a practical strategy to advance transgender rights and to working with the responsible elements in that community is strong and will continue to be.”
While the memo was sent using the NYAGRA e-mail account it does not reflect the group’s position, according to Andrea Sears, a spokesperson and board member for the NYAGRA faction that employs Hunter. She is also Hunter’s partner.
“I can say unequivocally that that is not an official NYAGRA statement,” Sears said. “This was not an official position statement. This was a personal statement.”
Sears noted that the time stamp on the e-mail shows it was sent at 10:45 in the evening when Hunter was on her own time.
Hunter said that the strategy outlined in the memo had since been abandoned.
“NYAGRA is actually leaving the SONDA work to the [New York Transgender] Coalition,” she said, referring to a new consortium of transgender groups statewide convened last month in Albany. “NYAGRA is really going to be focusing, in the future, less on the legislative stuff and more on the community.”
Pauline Park, a board co-chair of the other NYAGRA faction, disavowed Hunter and the memo.
“At no time did she ever forward this e-mail message to the NYAGRA board and at no time did she ever discuss with any board member the covert operations that she was apparently engaged in,” Park said.
The memo was sent to three upstate members who Hunter described as “relatively minor players” in an interview. Two have since quit the group, and another did not recall receiving it.
The memo proposed holding a fundraiser for a “critical Assembly member who privately supports us but refuses to go public because of ESPA’s huge campaign contributions to her re-election.”
That is an apparent reference to Deborah Glick, an out lesbian.
Melissa Sklarz, a board member with the NYAGRA faction that employs Hunter, said that last year the group had considered, but ultimately rejected, holding a fundraiser for Glick.
“It was one of the discussions we talked about,” she said.
Sklarz, who was unaware of the memo untilGay City News shared it with her, could not recall if the group pondered fundraisers for any other Assembly members.
The memo described Glick in fairly crass terms.
“One of the ideas suggested (off the record per a T-friendly senator) is that this Assembly member is most especially influenced by campaign donations,” Hunter wrote.
Glick rejected the suggestion that ESPA had bought her vote or that her support could be purchased with campaign donations.
“Anybody can see how minimal my support from ESPA is and how limited my fundraising activity is,” Glick said. “My reputation is precisely the opposite and a glance at my campaign contributions makes that obvious.” The view of elected officials as corrupt was repeated later in the memo.
“[E]very politician in Albany is into intrigue, secret meetings, traded votes, exchanged promises with lobbyists, unions, funders, and each other,” Hunter wrote. “[T]hey will only take action for us if we give them a political incentive to, not because its the right thing to do. It sucks, it’s corrupt, but it’s the way our state politicians work, like it or not.”
While that may be a common view of politicians, most people who are involved in politics do not memorialize such opinions in writing. Glick, now in her twelfth year in the Assembly, said the memo had a “certain naivete” when it comes to Albany politics.
“There seems to be a lack of understanding of the political process or political analysis,” she said. “Every community has its sniping and carping, but that anybody would be foolish enough to put it in writing is surprising.” That view was seconded by Miller. Hunter closed the memo by noting that Duane would assist NYAGRA.
“[H]e will again allow his chief of staff to help us with SONDA strategy and the conference, but only if its off the record… (so he doesn’t have to worry about the information he feeds us on other politicians getting back to them),” Hunter wrote.
Miller said that elected officials counseling lobbyists on which of their colleagues can be swayed on legislation was a standard practice.
“If that is construed as feeding information I think that is a misunderstanding,” she said. “It is a normal part of the political process.”
This article originally appeared in the 28 June 2002 issue of Gay City News.