Last Tuesday, I attended Equality & Justice Day in Albany. It is the LGBT lobby day for New York, run by the Empire State Pride Agenda. I generally had a good time, and was glad that I attended to show my support.
But I also noticed something throughout the day that, while I may not be in the best position to do so as a straight and cis person, seemed to me to deserve a strong critique.
I wrote earlier that the main bill I am concerned about seeing pass is GENDA. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act would protect people from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression in the areas of employment, housing, credit, and more. Right now, in New York, no such protections exist for trans or otherwise identifying gender variant people — despite the fact that such protections are in place (as they obviously should be) on the basis of sexual orientation.
Last year after Equality & Justice Day, I was surprised and pleased to see that GENDA, while it did not ever reach the Senate floor with Republicans in charge, was given seemingly equal attention to marriage equality and DASA (Dignity for All Students Act). It could be that I’m simply more aware of trans issues and their marginalization within supposedly LGBT communities than I was last year — though I was already aware of this issue last year, and for that reason made a specific point to watch out for its presence. But whatever the reason, I noticed a significant shift, and I feel obligated to mention it.
It started, or at least it became noticeable to me, when Governor Paterson came out to give his speech as the first official speaker. It was a great speech, it really was, and I was happy to see him there. Except. Well, it was a great speech if we were only there to talk about marriage equality. Because that’s all his speech was about. And that’s not the only reason we were there.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Pride Agenda had no control over the content of the Governor’s speech. When it’s the governor speaking, does an organization have any say in the topic of his remarks? I really honestly do not know. But it seemed to set a tone.
Because marriage equality, though on paper it was not supposed to be, was the focus of this day. While GENDA and DASA were often mentioned as sidelines, for a majority of the morning speakers, they were not the focus, and they were not even usually given equal treatment. In fact, I’d say that GENDA received the least treatment of the three issues in question. Because though I don’t remember who it was, I do specifically remember someone talking at decent length about bullying in schools. I also admittedly missed a chunk of the afternoon rally — but from what I saw, it was much of the same. It seemed from the program that there was only one speaker at the rally there to represent trans issues; and I saw her speak, and she only spoke for a minute or two.
I saw the same dynamic in my lobby visits. Now, I want to be clear that the Pride Agenda has no direct control over what goes on in the lobby visits. The lobby visit facilitators are volunteers who do not officially represent the organization. And I will also say that I like the facilitator from my group very much and spent a good deal of the day in his company.
But when we got to the meeting for our senator — and remember, GENDA has passed the Assembly, so the Senate is what matters — he had people in our group talk at length about marriage equality. Then he had people talk at length about DASA. (I personally said something about both bills.) And then, before I knew it, the meeting was over. When I realized what was happening I tried to catch my facilitator’s eye to say “What about GENDA?” but he didn’t look my way, and it was too late. When the one person in our group who had identified herself as trans questioned him on it after the meeting, the response was basically a fairly sheepish “yeah, well, I guess I only got to fit two in.”
When we got back to the banquet hall for the closing, we watched a short video which debunked many of the myths that marriage equality opponents use to scare people out of their support. There was, it probably goes without saying, no similar video for GENDA, though the myths and scare-tactics surrounding such legislation are well-known, rampant and appalling.
There is clearly a problem here.
And that problem could, certainly, have been one that was clearly visible last year and I simply missed due to ignorance on my part. I have not entirely ruled that out — though again, I was actively expecting and looking for it last year. So if I had to guess, I would actually, and sadly, place my money on something that I find even more appalling.
Last year, marriage equality didn’t have a chance in hell. Sure, legislators and activists talked the same big game, but everyone knew it. Republicans controlled the legislative body. It likely wasn’t going to get introduced, and if it was, it was going to get shot down.
This year? Things are significantly different. 53% of New Yorkers recently polled said that they would support marriage equality in New York. Democrats are now in charge, and while that’s definitely not a guarantee, it’s a lot better. And the governor has been actively promoting a bill.
In other words: marriage equality has a real, legitimate chance this year. It might actually make it through. Before 2009 is over, we might have it.
When marriage equality had no real shot, it seemed to me that GENDA was portrayed as equally important to it. It was regularly discussed in conjunction with the other issues. And last year, I also had the same lobby visit facilitator, and we managed to discuss GENDA substantially in all of those visits.
Now that marriage equality is a very real possibility, GENDA has taken a back seat — despite the fact that it has significantly greater favor with voters, but much of the same resistance among lawmakers, and establishes rights that are easily as important, and quite arguably more so. And so, it seems to me that the rights of trans people only matter when the real goal, the currently trendy one, isn’t really on the table.
I am, in all honesty, not particularly surprised by this. But I am extraordinarily disappointed and saddened, and also angry. Because what I have outlined above, if accurate (and I’m sure the Pride Agenda would vehemently deny it), is tremendously and unforgivably fucked up. And even if I’m wrong about the reasoning — even if things were just as bad last year — it doesn’t erase the disparity or make it any less of a major issue.
I hope there is no doubt that I would absolutely love to see New York become the next state to gain marriage equality. But I don’t want it on the backs of trans people. (Of course, there are many trans people who would also benefit from marriage equality; but I think it would be disingenuous to act as though it’s the thinking at play here.)
What I don’t want is marriage equality in New York while it’s still fucking legal to deny a transgender person a place to live. I don’t want New York to become the sixth state to instate marriage equality when it is not yet even the fourteenth state to instate anti- discrimination laws on the basis of gender identity.
And yet, I’m worried that it’s exactly what’s going to happen. I worry that we’re going to end up looking a hell of a lot like New Hampshire. And that in that event, as so often happens, the rest of the supposed coalition won’t come back for transgender people.
I’m not saying “the Pride Agenda couldn’t care less about trans people.” Some certainly would make that argument, but again, as a straight and cis woman, I don’t think I’m in a position to make that call.
I am, however, in a position to simply report what I saw. And what I saw was a day that was supposed to be about rights for all LGBT New Yorkers largely toss out the T. I saw a day whose focus was on marriage equality, not marriage equality, GENDA and DASA. I saw a disparity, and I saw a problem.
NOTE: This is not a place for 101 questions. If you have one, google it.