ESPA Looks Forward in Queens (GCN, 4.25.03)

ESPA Looks Forward in Queens
Mick Meenan
Gay City News
25 April 2003

Members of the LGBT community in Queens turned out on a blustery night April 23 to attend a town hall meeting sponsored by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) at the Queens Pride House in Woodside. The presentation was the first New York City forum in an ongoing series of meetings around the state sponsored by ESPA to articulate the group’s legislative agenda following the passage of the Sexual Non Discrimination Act (SONDA), the landmark gay rights legislation signed into law by Gov. George Pataki in December. ESPA played the leading role in passage of the legislation. Sabrina Shulman, a public policy advocate at ESPA, highlighted some recent legislative successes and unveiled the group’s goal of achieving “complete equality under the law in the next 10 years.” That strategy seeks incremental achievements at the state and local level with an eye on introducing a bill that legalizes same-sex marriage as the ultimate objective. Joe Tarver, ESPA’s communications director, joined Shulman in outlining the strategic nuances of the overall legislative plan, as well as fielding questions from the 25 attendees present. Among those who raised questions during the forum were Andres Duque, executive director of Mano a Mano, an umbrella group serving LGBT Latino/a groups citywide, Jimmy Van Bramer, a vice president of the Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens, Denny Meyer, president of the New York chapter of AVER, an LGBT veterans’ association, Pauline Park, a transgender activist on the Pride House board, and PFLAG Queens president Anne Quashen. Shulman specifically mentioned Pataki’s endorsement during his most recent State of the State address of a measure, introduced by Assemblymember Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn), that would allow domestic violence complaints filed by a same-sex partner to be handled by Family Court. Currently, the state’s criminal courts process same-sex domestic violence cases as criminal complaints which prevents same-sex couples from availing themselves of the counseling and ancillary social services afforded by family court in adjudicating such cases. Other bills pending in the legislature include a line of duty death benefit bill for police and fire fighters and a workers’ compensation benefit bill, both of which provide financial compensation to the surviving same-sex partner of a deceased employee on the same terms as to a spouse. Assemblymember Deborah Glick (D-West Village) has introduced a bereavement leave bill that provides same-sex couples with paid leave from work following the death of a deceased partner. Shulman explained that ESPA is watching court cases pending in New Jersey and Massachusetts whose outcomes will impact directly upon gay marriage in those states. But, she and Tarver also underscored that, failing a major marriage victory elsewhere, legislative victories on these “incremental measures” are needed to solidify support for an eventual push to legalize same-sex marriage here in New York. Shulman also warned of the need for vigilance to safeguard against a bill that would specifically outlaw gay marriage. “We need to make sure a DOMA [defense of marriage act] never comes out of the state legislature,” she said. “If such a bill were to arrive on the floor of either house it would trap our friends.” Tarver acknowledged that the controversy over the goal and even nomenclature of marriage within the LGBT community itself. “Many in our community don’t want marriage or the 700 rights that come with it,” he said, referring to ESPA’s recent tabulation of all the benefits of marriage under New York law that supplement the 1,049 rights and benefits estimated under federal law. “That is understandable. But this is our message tonight and we are here to hear from you and hear if there is a response or objection to that message.” Tarver reiterated a theme that ESPA has emphasized a number of times in the past 18 months: “September 11th raised the issue of gay families. I spent a considerable amount of time in the weeks following in conversations with various newspapers discussing the issue of gay families.” One participant at the forum commended the approach outlined: “I think ESPA’s strategy is shrewd. You’re not saying, ‘Give us marriage or nothing else.’ You’re coming at it from a level playing field.” In follow up comments after the main presentation, Matt Foreman, ESPA’s outgoing executive director, acknowledged that the ESPA strategy assumes that New York State is not yet ready for the marriage debate. “We are creating a way for same-sex couples to obtain benefits long denied to us and for recognition of our relationships and families,” he said. “Given our fragile public state, the issue of marriage should not be on the table right now, but we must prepare for it.” Foreman outlined ESPA’s upcoming efforts to establish a grass–roots coalition building campaign between LGBT advocacy organizations and labor unions and church–based groups. “While we seek incremental successes in Albany, we are striving to build grass-roots support to attain a critical mass to achieve full equality,” he said. By year’s end, ESPA plans to have conducted polling, canvassed focus groups, and published educational materials and curricula to “get the middle gettable.” In reference to ESPA’s endorsement in the last gubernatorial campaign of the incumbent Republican over Democratic challenger Carl McCall, one attendee asked Foreman, “You want to talk about Pataki?” “What do you want to know?” quipped Foreman. “He’s my boyfriend.” Foreman went on to explain that ESPA exists to attain equality for LGBT New Yorkers. “We are not advocates for mass transit,” he said. “Pataki had a good record on LGBT issues and was actually better than any of his predecessors. Critics say, ‘Well, it came late in his term.’ When people change, they should be applauded, not reminded of the way they were.” No efforts were made by the Pataki campaign to obtain an endorsement, Foreman insisted. “Joe Bruno reached out to us,” he said, in reference to the State Senate Republican leader’s promise before the election to schedule a SONDA vote in December. “Joe Bruno has changed. He knew the Senate had to move to the political center. I was very impressed with him. He’s a straight shooter.”

This article originally appeared in the 25 April 2003 issue of Gay City News.

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