A bitter battle among Manhattan politicians and gay activists is threatening to scuttle the landmark gay-rights bill scheduled to come to a vote in the State Senate on Dec. 17.
The fight is not exactly your typical legislative skirmish. It’s about whether the bill should be amended to include not only gays and lesbians, but also those who identify themselves as “people of transgendered experience.”
On one side are two Manhattan State Senators-Democrats Tom Duane and David Paterson, who won’t commit their support for the bill unless “transgendered individuals” are included. On the other side are the big mainstream gay groups, like the Empire State Pride Agenda, who are worried that the Senators are endangering the entire bill. They say that any tinkering could doom the legislation by opening it up to a conservative attack, or by allowing opponents to tie it up in procedural knots.
The showdown concerns one of the murkiest categories in the already messy realm of human sexuality. According to transgender activist Pauline Park, transgendered individuals are people who have discovered that the gender of their bodies doesn’t match that of their souls-cross-dressers, feminine men, masculine women or people who, in the words of Ms. Park, have gotten “sex-reassignment surgery.” They are not necessarily gay or lesbian; they have simply assumed the sartorial, behavioral or, in some cases, the genital trappings of the opposite sex.
But however difficult transgendered individuals are to define, one thing is clear: The word “transgendered” does not appear in the gay-rights bill.
In October, the Republican-controlled Senate agreed to allow a vote on the measure after blocking it for three decades, a huge breakthrough for gay-rights advocates. But since that victory, the battle has been intensifying among gay politicos and Democrats over transgendered individuals.
In an interview with The Observer , Mr. Duane accused the Pride Agenda of selling out the transgender community. He charged that the group had failed in October to push Republicans hard enough for “transgender inclusion.”
“It was a mistake, Mr. Duane said. “Hopefully, they will rectify it.”
Mainstream gay activists, meanwhile, are angrily charging that Mr. Duane is using the issue to position himself for a run for Manhattan Borough President in 2005.
Senators Duane and Paterson want the bill amended to become “trans-inclusive,” which would extend the bill’s protections against discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas to transgendered individuals.
“I would support the bill without the amendment if I had convincing evidence that the law currently protects transgendered people,” said Mr. Paterson, who wields considerable clout in Albany as the incoming Senate Minority Leader.
“I would support it if that community were willing to let the bill go through as is,” Mr. Paterson added. “If not, it’s going to be very difficult. I want to be consistent with my personal belief that to exclude anyone is an affront to everyone.”
“These are among the most discriminated-against people in the state,” Mr. Duane said. “There’s no reason why the state can’t protect them.”
When asked whether he would support a bill that failed to protect transgendered individuals, Mr. Duane declined to comment, and his spokesman, Jaclyn Brot, would only say: “Tom has been an activist for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for his entire legislative career, and this process is the culmination of those efforts.”
City law already provides protections against discrimination for gays and transgendered individuals; there is no equivalent on the state level.
The Senators’ position has mystified and enraged groups like the Empire State Pride Agenda, and has caused widespread panic among wealthy Manhattan supporters of gay causes.
“We can’t have this issue end up killing the bill,” said Matt Foreman, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s largest gay-rights group.
Mr. Foreman said he was sympathetic in principle to the plight of the transgendered, but added: “This is a ‘Hail, Mary’ pass to try to get trans-inclusion. It’s inconceivable that it will work.”
The squabble has arisen at a time when the bill faces challenges on other fronts. With the vote fast approaching, conservative groups opposed to the measure are exerting huge amounts of pressure on lawmakers in upstate conservative districts. One group is planning to bus a group of constituents to Albany on Dec. 17 to pray outside the State Capitol before the vote is taken. And although gay lobbyists have long predicted that the Republican-controlled Senate would pass the bill if it comes to the floor, Mr. Paterson isn’t so sure. He conceded to The Observer that he wasn’t certain whether there was enough Democratic support to get the bill passed.
“There are Democrats who have told me that they have a problem with this bill,” Mr. Paterson said, adding that putting aside the question of transgendered individuals, “it’s going to be hard enough to pass it as it is.”
The bill, which was first introduced in 1971, not long after the Stonewall riots, would simply add the words “sexual orientation” to an already existing human-rights law banning discrimination in housing, education or employment on the basis of race, religion, sex and other factors.
While the Democratic-controlled Assembly has passed the bill many times since, the Senate’s Republican leadership has not allowed it to come to a vote. But last October, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno announced that he would allow it to come to the floor in mid-December, a decision that was widely seen as part of a political deal to win gay support for the re-election of Governor George Pataki, who has promised to sign the bill into law. And on Dec. 10, Mr. Bruno again told reporters that he would bring the bill to a vote, adding that he was “inclined” to vote for it himself.
Now some supporters of the measure just want to get it passed.
“Even without transgender-specific language, a victory here will show that our political power is on the rise,” said Ethan Geto, a public-relations veteran who has been retained on the issue by the Pride Agenda. “It would create a potent platform to advance transgender and other gay-rights issues, while a failure would set us all back a generation.”
The transgender dust-up could scuttle the bill in any number of ways, supporters say. One fear is that if Mr. Duane or another Senator introduced an amendment in the Senate, Republicans would actually vote for it as part of a Machiavellian plot to destroy the measure. According to the State Legislature’s rules, the exact same bill has to pass both houses. So if the Senate passed an amended bill, the Assembly would have to reconvene and pass an identical one. It’s unlikely that the Assembly would do that, which would leave two different bills-and no law.
The amendment could also give conservative groups more ammunition to attack the proposal in moderate or conservative districts.
“Upstaters and conservatives are already going out on a limb to vote for this thing,” one gay activist said. “Including the transgender amendment would saw the limb off.”
For Mr. Paterson, there’s an irony underlying his push for trans-inclusion. He recalls that in 1987, he held out against voting for a hate-crimes bill because it didn’t include gays and lesbians. Black and Hispanic constituents were furious, but he held his ground. Now, some of the same constituents he held out for then-gays and lesbians-are equally enraged by his holding out for another group on the margins.
“The thing that made Dr. King great was that he opposed the war even though people told him it was going to hurt civil rights,” Mr. Paterson said. “He was consistent, and that’s why he was Dr. King. I’m not trying to compare myself to him; I’m just trying to emulate him.”