SONDA and Transgender Inclusion in Pending State Legislation
by Pauline Park
Member, NYAGRA Board of Directors
Recently, there has been much discussion within the transgender community in New York City about the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), the ‘gay rights bill’ currently pending in the New York state legislature. I would like to take this opportunity to inform NYAGRA members about NYAGRA’s position on this important piece of legislation.
As most of you know, SONDA does not include any transgender-specific language, and without such definitional language – for example, defining
sexual orientation to include ‘gender identity or expression,’ it is extremely unlikely that any court in this state would interpret such legislation (once enacted) as including transsexual or transgendered people, per se. SONDA defines ‘sexual orientation’ as “heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality, and so a transgendered person could only use the law (once enacted) to sue for discrimination if s/he also identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) and if the s/he could provide clear evidence that the discrimination involved related to his/her identification as LGB, regardless of any discriminatory intent based on gender identity or expression. In practical terms, then, SONDA cannot plausibly be regarded as even remotely transgender-inclusive.
There has been some confusion and misinformation concerning NYAGRA’s position on SONDA. When NYAGRA was formed in June 1998, getting transgender-specific and transgender-inclusive legislation enacted was among our primary goals. The full inclusion of all transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people in state human rights law was and remains a fundamental commitment of this organization. The question has been how to achieve that objective. At no time did the NYAGRA board of directors ever accept the proposition that SONDA was acceptable as written. Rather, the question at hand was one of strategy and tactics – how to move the ‘gay establishment’ and the state legislature to support transgender inclusion in state discrimination legislation.
The first decision that the NYAGRA board (then known as ‘the working group’) made was to meet with the the leading lesbian and gay political organization in the state. Tim Sweeney (then deputy director) and Paula Ettelbrick (then legislative counsel) recommended that NYAGRA and ESPA work together first on local legislation and then tackle the state legislature, and we accepted that recommendation.
Those who may be critical of the decision we made back in the fall of 1998 must understand the context in which it was made. NYAGRA was an entirely new organization, with no membership to speak of and no resources. The seven of us who met in David Valentine’s apartment on that hot afternoon on June 28 dreamt of creating an organization that would advocate for all transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people in this state; but we were also realistic enough to know that we were not in a position to dictate terms to a well-funded statewide organization that had a dozen full-time paid staff members, a membership of 14,000 or more, and an annual budget of over $1 million and that was – significantly – in a position to serve as gatekeeper on any LGBT-related legislation in the state legislature.
The transgender community (however defined) is a marginalized one with few resources and little political clout, and lags far behind the organized lesbian and gay community in terms of political organization. We in NYAGRA recognized that we could gain far more by working with ESPA than by demanding full transgender inclusion in a state discrimination bill that we were in no position politically to demand. By forming a strategic partnership with the Pride Agenda, we have been able to advance the legislative and political agenda of the transgender community far more effectively than if we had chosen to ‘tilt at windmills.’ ESPA’s support for the New York City transgender rights bill (Int. No. 754) was crucial for us to gain entree to Councilmembers and to give us credibility in the legislative arena.
At the time of NYAGRA’s formation in June 1998, there was not a single transgender political organization in New York City or state working directly and consistently on legislation. It is through NYAGRA’s campaign for Intro 754 that the transgender community has gained credibility in the legislative arena. At the time of the founding of NYAGRA, transgender inclusion in pending city or state legislation was not even seriously discussed in political circles. No lesbian/gay political organization in this city actively supported such inclusion, and no member of the City Council or the state legislature (to our knowledge) had even been approached about inclusion in discrimination or hate crimes legislation.
As we enter 2002, the political landscape has been transformed. Every major political club in New York City – including Gay & Lesbian Independent Democrats (GLID), Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, the Stonewall Democratic Club, and the Out People of Color Political Action Club (OutPOCPAC), as well as ESPA – has endorsed Intro 754 as well as including a question on Intro 754 on their candidate questionnaires (in most cases, the very first question on those questionnaires) in the 2001 election cycle. As a consequence of the support of these political clubs and crucially of the Pride Agenda, Intro 754 became widely viewed as a barometer of a candidate’s support not only of the transgender community but of the LGBT community as a whole. Remarkably, three of the four leading candidates for the Democratic mayoral nomination (Fernando Ferrer, Mark Green, and Alan Hevesi) endorsed Intro 754 a year before the November 2001 election, and even the one candidate who did not endorse the bill (Peter Vallone) did
not publicly oppose it. The Republican mayoral nominee (Michael Bloomberg) also committed himself to signing the bill, an important endorsement, given his election in November 2001. Both candidates for City comptroller and all five of the leading candidates for public advocate endorsed the bill. And some of the more progressive and LGBT-supportive candidates for City Council even approached NYAGRA proactively to ask that their names be put on the Intro 754 endorsement list.
The transgender community has made progress outside of New York City as well. Gender identity language was been included in the amendment to the Suffolk County anti-discrimination bill signed into law in 2001 as well as in the City of Rochester’s human rights law also enacted last year. And the City of Ithaca passed a hate crimes law that included ‘gender identity or presentation,’ making it the first jurisdiction in the state to explicitly recognize transgender in a hate crimes statute. And when the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) was reintroduced in the state legislature in January 2001, it became the first piece of legislation ever introduced in that body to include transgender-specific language.
None of this was even conceivable back in June 1998. And so when we consider the issue of SONDA, we must realize how much NYAGRA’s work on Intro 754, DASA, and other pending legislation has raised expectations within the transgender community to a level far above that in 1998, when we (rightly) expected little or nothing of legislators or candidates for public office.
NYAGRA’s position on SONDA is this: state human rights law should and must include all transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people, whether through an amendment to pending legislation (such as SONDA), existing statute law (such as an enacted SONDA), or some other mechanism. SONDA is in many ways the ideal vehicle, as it is still pending and given that many legislators simply assume that ‘sexual orientation’ includes transgendered people. However, while we are committed to full transgender inclusion in state anti-discrimination law, we are also committed to working with ESPA where possible while challenging them when necessary. We recognize (as some in the community do not) that there is a two-step process to amending SONDA. First, we (and that ‘we’ includes not only NYAGRA but other transgender organizations and allies) must persuade the Pride Agenda that transgendered people deserve the same protections from discrimination as LGB people; and second, we must persuade the co-sponsors of SONDA in the state legislature to amend the bill.
What some may not recognize is that working at the state level presents greater challenges than working at the local level. While the Assembly is controlled by (generally progressive) LGBT-supportive Democrats, the state Senate is controlled by conservative Republicans who blocked the state hate crimes bill for 12 years because of its inclusion of sexual orientation. (That bill passed the Senate only in June 2000 and was signed into law in July 2001, without transgender-inclusive language.)
It is certainly not NYAGRA that has been blocking transgender inclusion in SONDA. And it is not solely the responsibility of NYAGRA board and staff members to secure full transgender inclusion in state law. Rather, it is the responsibility of all transgendered people and transgender-supportive LGBs and other allies to secure full transgender inclusion in state law. NYAGRA has grown tremendously over the last few years, but it remains a relatively small organization relative to well-established lesbian/gay statewide political organizations; and NYAGRA is a relatively under-funded organization as well, in relation to its mission and its needs (especially when one considers that there is little funding for lobbying or legislative work, which we do entirely on an unpaid volunteer basis). In the last few years since our founding, we in NYAGRA have focused on legislative objectives that we believe are realistically attainable (especially the passage of Intro 754) in order to build a foundation for pursuit of legislative goals whose realization are probably more distant – such as an amendment to SONDA (either pre- or post-enactment).
Members of the transgender community must begin to take responsibility for themselves and realize that they can play a role in the passage of legislation. If they are concerned about inclusion in state law, they can write their representatives in the Assembly and the Senate or visit them in Albany or in their district offices. There is nothing preventing any individual (whether transgender-identified or not) from raising the issue of transgender inclusion in SONDA or any other bill currently pending in the state legislature. Those who have expressed frustration with SONDA’s lack of transgender-specific language need to ask themselves if they have done what they could to secure full transgender inclusion in that bill or other pending legislation.
There is no one organization (let alone any one individual) who can claim to speak for the entire transgender community, and NYAGRA has never claimed to be such an organization. Instead, we in NYAGRA have advocated on behalf of the transgender community (a subtle but important distinction). We have been especially active in those areas where we believed there was a realistic opportunity for legislative action – most particularly with Intro 754, where there is a very good chance of getting the bill passed in the incoming City Council.
The strategic partnership that NYAGRA formed with the Pride Agenda back in the fall of 1998 has paid rich rewards in terms of our ability to advance a transgender legislative agenda. While we have not always succeeded in persuading ESPA to support full transgender inclusion in pending legislation (such as with the state hate crimes bill or SONDA), we have garnered their support for important bills (such as Intro 754)without which it would not have been possible to move that legislation forward.
Politics is ultimately about human relationships, and the relationships that we forged with senior staff – Tim Sweeney (the former deputy director who left ESPA in October 2000) and Matt Foreman (the outgoing executive director who left ESPA in December 2001), in particular – may change as new leadership takes over at ESPA. But we remain committed to working with ESPA staff to the extent possible while also remaining willing to challenge them – even publicly – when necessary. And we remain committed to full transgender inclusion in state law.