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Bryan Ball - President, Stonewall Democrats of WNY

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Bryan Ball: President, Stonewall Democrats of WNY

Two civil rights issues of interest to millions of New Yorkers—the Marriage Equality Act and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA)—are before the state legislature right now. We asked the president of one of the area’s most influential LGBTQ advocacy groups to explain why these laws are important, and why he’s been invited to the White House.

Who are the Stonewall Democrats of Western New York?

Stonewall Democrats of Western New York is a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer (LGBTQ) civil rights advocacy group. The Democratic LGBTQ voice in WNY, we work to advance the civil rights movement by achieving our equality-- both through lobbying for and passing pro-equality legislation and working to elect pro-equality candidates. Our main legislative priorities for the state are Marriage Equality and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression. We have worked to elect openly LGBTQ candidates to public office such as Jamestown City Council President Greg Rabb, and we work to elect our ally champions such as NYS Assemblymember Sam Hoyt, Senator Tim Kennedy and Erie County Legislature Majority Leader Maria Whyte, among many others. Although we are a Democratic organization, the nature of who we are--a minority community denied our civil rights by local, state and federal government-- our number one priority is passing civil rights legislation. This year, that has meant lobbying many Republican elected officials, and we are extremely proud and pleased at the positive, non-dismissive response we have (for the most part) received.

What is the Marriage Equality Act, and why is it important to the LGBT community?

The Marriage Equality Act is legislation which will extend the civil act of a marriage between two people to include same-gender committed, loving couples. The Act in no way limits any religious institution's ability to perform their own-- wholly separate-- rites of marriage, and will allow open and affirming churches to do so for same-gender couples. Marriage Equality is needed, painfully urgent legislation because without the right of a civil marriage, LGBTQ New Yorkers are denied 1,324 state and federal rights that are allowed to people in heterosexual partnerships. Each day that goes by without Marriage Equality as law in New York State, couples and families suffer. Without the 1,324 rights and protections that come with a marriage, couples are forced to seek imperfect and expensive solutions to protect their selves, their health, their homes and their children in the face of life’s troubles and tragedies. Without Marriage Equality, couples and families live with the constant fear that without the legal protections segregated on a basis of gender they and their family could one day lose everything. Sadly, instances happen constantly, where partners who have lived with each other for years lose their homes, other property and children to their partner's, non-accepting legal relatives upon the death of one partner. Without a way to civilly formalize their union as marriage, couples continue to lose everything because there is no system in place that can protect families like a civil marriage can.

Similar legislation has passed in other states. Why do you think passage has been such a struggle in past years in New York?

I think New York's main struggle has been with government leadership. Thankfully, this year we have Governor Cuomo who has been so steadfast and staunch in his advocacy for Marriage Equality, and he has followed through by having discussions and sitting down with both Democrats and Republicans to achieve equality.

Passage of the bill seems closer than ever this legislative session. What's different about this year?

Although many things remain the same-- our community of activists who have lobbied for years to pass this legislation continues to work so hard-- I believe the overall campaign for equality has been more successful as Gov. Cuomo has been able to lead a non-partisan discussion on equality. This isn't about Democrats, it isn't about Republicans, it's about New Yorkers and families.

You're attending a reception at the White House later this month. Could you tell us about that?

Yes, I had the great fortunate and honor of receiving an invitation to President Obama's LGBT Pride Month Reception to be held later this month at the White House. I am going to be taking Kitty Lambert, of Buffalo's Outspoken for Equality, who has been the essential voice of lobbying for marriage and equality in WNY for the past several years. It is an incredible honor, to be recognized by the Obama administration and a President who has done more to advance LGBTQ equality than any other in such a short period of time. Yes, we need much more work to be done at the federal level such as bringing equality to immigration laws, passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which federally voids a same-gender marriage. But with President Obama leading efforts to successfully repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and being able to sign hate crimes legislation, I know this man will only build on his LGBTQ achievements.

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