Last year gay activists were fighting conservatives in their attempt to get the New York legislature to pass a statewide antidiscrimination law covering gays and lesbians. But this year they find themselves facing off with transgender groups.
For 31 years activists have lobbied the legislators to pass the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw antigay discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas. The bill got a huge boost in January when Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, endorsed it in his State of the State speech. And after passing the assembly in January, the bill is expected to go before a favorable senate by June. But now transgender organizations are waging a vocal campaign to amend the legislation to include protections against discrimination based on gender identity.
The tussle in New York reflects a familiar tension that is often present between gay and transgender political groups. Gay politicos insist that excluding gender language from proposed laws is political realism. But gender groups counter that it’s hypocritical to wave the banner of civil rights while purposely excluding some of the community’s most vulnerable members.
Adding gender language to SONDA at this point “would cripple the ability to garner enough votes” to press it, said Joe Grabarz, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, the gay group that has led the fight for the bill. Grabarz added that the transgender groups “have done virtually no education of politicians on their issues” and that a “last-minute, ill-prepared attempt” to amend the bill would achieve only one thing: SONDA’s defeat.
But Pauline Park, of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, said that too often “gay groups are tempted to throw the trannies overboard in the name of political expediency.” She added that many lawmakers often mistakenly believe the term ‘sexual orientation’ includes transgendered people in its definition.
Even if securing transgender rights were more difficult than winning gay and lesbian rights alone, Park said, including protection for transgendered people should be based on a bedrock philosophy of equality: “It’s a question of commitment to the principle of equal rights and not leaving anyone behind.”
This article originally appeared in the 19 March 2002 issue of The Advocate magazine, which is now defunct.