By Duncan Osborne
At the close of a town hall meeting on the political future of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in the wake of same-sex marriage’s enactment in New York, Ross Levi, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the statewide gay lobby, threw cold water on any impulse to declare victory and shut down the movement.
“We can’t pop the champagne and say, ‘We’re done,’” Levi told the crowd of roughly 100 who turned out for the August 16 forum “After ‘I Do’: What’s Next for LGBT New Yorkers?” at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Levi was one of four speakers on a panel moderated by State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat who represents much of Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. The forum was sponsored by Squadron and endorsed by roughly 20 state and federal elected officials from New York.
Panelists noted that the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would add gender identity to New York laws to bar discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and other areas, has yet to get a vote in the State Senate. GENDA, which would protect transgender New Yorkers among others, has passed the State Assembly five times by “large bipartisan majorities,” Levi said.
The community celebrated on June 24 when the State Senate passed a gay marriage bill and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed it into law. The first marriages in New York between lesbian and gay couples began on July 24.
Sexual orientation was added to the state’s anti-discrimination laws in late 2002. New York’s hate crime law, with sexual orientation as a protected class, passed in 2000.
“There are a number of opportunities and challenges before us,” said Thomas W. Ude, Jr., a senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal, the gay rights law firm. “Discrimination doesn’t stop because a law goes on the books.”
Aside from GENDA, speakers, who included Alphonso David, a senior aide in the Cuomo administration, participating by Internet hook up, said that implementing gay marriage in state law was ongoing at the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance, which is issuing advisories to gay and lesbian couples on tax matters, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is addressing name changes on licenses.
In 2012, the state will implement the Dignity For All Students Act, an anti-bullying law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. The bill was passed in 2010.
Adding emphasis to the evening’s theme that many of the community’s goals have not been realized, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made a brief appearance, telling the crowd, “We have to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, and it’s one of our highest priorities on the federal level.”
That 1996 law bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and purports to allow states to do the same. Currently, 40 states ban recognition of same-sex marriages by law, amendments to their constitutions, or both. Six states, including New York, and the nation’s capital, have legalized same-sex marriage.
DOMA and those state laws can complicate life for married lesbian and gay couples because such couples become legal strangers when they leave the state where they married and enter one that does not recognize such unions.
Calling DOMA a “corrosive policy,” Gillibrand said, “Eventually, we want to have marriage equality on a federal level, and that is a longterm goal.”
The successful vote in New York may also spawn a problem for the community –– a backlash. One conservative group, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), has promised to spend $2 million to unseat the four Republican state senators who joined 29 Democrats in the 62-seat State Senate to enact marriage. NOM also proposes to change the Democratic majority in the Assembly and eventually have the Legislature place an initiative on the ballot that could have New Yorkers vote to reverse marriage.
“We can’t take this win for granted,” Levi said. “We have to make sure that those who stood by us, that we stand by them.”
The Empire State’s marriage law has entered national politics, with some Republican contenders for that party’s presidential nomination saying that New York makes amending the US Constitution to ban gay marriage all the more pressing. One audience member asked Gillibrand if they could be successful at rolling back same-sex marriage.
“No, they will fail,” Gillibrand said, drawing loud applause and cheers.
Other panelists were Melissa Goodman, senior litigation and policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and Everett Lo, a program manager at the New York regional office of the federal Social Security Administration.