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Equality and Justice Day 2009

Activists gather in Albany to lobby for same-sex marriage and other legislation

Last Tuesday more than 2,000 New Yorkers from across the state gathered in Albany to attend Equality and Justice Day, the most important annual lobby day on the LGBT calendar.

Attendants were lobbying for three pieces of legislation: Marriage Equality, which would legalize same-sex marriage; Dignity for All Students, which would prohibit students from harassment in public schools; and the Gender Expression Non-discrimination Act (GENDA), which would bar discrimination based on an individual’s gender identity.

Addressing the lobby was Governor David Paterson, who gave the keynote speech. “Martin Luther King Jr. once advised, ‘The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice,’” Paterson began. “We’re here to shorten up the arc today.”

His speech he alluded to previous civil rights struggles:

“Anyone that has ever experienced degradation or intolerance would understand the solemn duty and how important it actually is. Anyone that’s ever experienced anti-Semitism or racism, any New Yorker who is an immigrant, who has experienced discrimination, any woman who has faced harassment at work or suffered violence at home, any disabled person who has been mocked or marginalized, understands what we’re talking about here. We have all known the wrath of discrimination. We have all felt the pain and the insult of hatred. This is why we are all standing here today. We stand to tell the world that we want equality for everyone. We stand to tell the world that we want marriage equality in New York State.”

Paterson also touched upon key issues facing LGBT couples including health insurance, hospital visitation, and inheritance rights that the Marriage Equality bill would address.

Paterson will introduce the Marriage Equality bill to the floor of the State Assembly this week. It is a risky move, one that could worsen his image if it is not passed. But cynics speculate that since his polls are at an all-time low, he has nothing left to lose and could in fact shore up a key voting bloc.

Lobby visits to Albany are a lesson in how the political process works. How legislators stand on an issue is demonstrated by how receptive they are to visitors. Local politicians in favor of marriage equality—such as Assemblymen Mark Schroeder and Sam Hoyt and State Senator Antoine Thompson—cordially received guests. Legislators in opposition—such as State Senators George Maziarz, Mike Ranzenhofer, Bill Stachowski, and Dale Volker—either shunt lobbyists to legal aides who may or may not be sympathetic, or are conveniently unavailable or flat-out refuse to receive visitors.

Party lines are not necessarily a guarantee that a legislator will support the issue. Democratic State Senator Bill Stachowski has opposed marriage equality, citing his Catholic background. Despite his stance, last year when he was up for re-election, he was endorsed by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA). The reasons behind the endorsement were twofold: a Democratic majority in the State Senate, long controlled by Republicans, would enable the marriage bill to be introduced; and hopefully Stachowski would eventually change his views.

Douglas Charles, who went to lobby Stachowski, wondered aloud, “Why is Senator Stachowski more privileged than I?”

While ESPA is busy courting Stachowski, who has historically shown indifference, it has lately ignored a key supporter in Antoine Thompson. Although ESPA endorsed him last year in his re-election bid, Thompson, a long-time ally and ardent sponsor of the Marriage Equality bill, feels somewhat slighted by the organization. ESPA, based out of New York City, has severed most of its ties to the Buffalo LGBT community, including the annual Buffalo Brunch and OUTspoken for Equality. Bruce Kogan, president of the Stonewall Democrats of Western New York, said, “We’re struggling for the same cause. Some of the measures ESPA have taken are counterproductive.”

“Last year when I was running for re-election my opponent, Mark Grisanti, was leafletting homophobic material in local churches,” Thompson said. “I contacted ESPA and they didn’t do anything. There are only five Democratic senators upstate and two liberal ones. I’m the only one in Western New York. ESPA was a full partner in helping me to win the Senate seat, but I’m disappointed they were not as supportive.”

Asked why he supports marriage equality, Thompson told local lobbyists, “It’s about municipal equality. New York State doesn’t tell the church what to do. Any municipality in New York State can issue licenses.”

In discussing how it affects the Buffalo community, he said, “Some of the clergy have taken the position of non-conservative Baptist ministries that it may not be Biblically right but it is civically right. A lot of ministries in Buffalo are dealing with this issue in different ways because of HIV/AIDS. A lot of the black churches are familiar with this and are quietly talking about it.”

Thompson is in the process of introducing a bill to enact fair housing laws for transgendered people, noting that the transgnedered are a protected class by law in the city but not in the state.

Assemblyman Mark Schroeder at one time opposed marriage equality but now wholeheartedly supports it, even advising visitors on strategies. According to Buffalonian Cynthia Van Ness, who visited Schroeder, “He told us to approach people like Mike Bloomberg to sway other Republicans to get more votes.”

A contingent of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) was present in Albany to show support. Speaking to a NYCLU gathering, Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell (brother of Rosie O’Donnell) said, “I don’t seek to [intrude] in your church or synagogue. When a couple marries, the person administering the rights states, ‘By the power vested in me by the State of New York’—not God, not the federal government.”

John Curr III, director of NYCLU’s Western Regional Office, is a disabled combat veteran who was active in the Army for fourteen years; he served in the first Persian Gulf War. “No matter what church, synagogue, temple, mosque you visit, it’s a civil matter,” Curr said. “All the arguments, the religious fear-mongering…no religious institution is forced to marry Jews or Muslims. This threatens no house of worship, in fact it protects families. Same-sex couples experience a great injustice that the law does not protect.”

On Iowa being ahead of New York in legalizing same sex marriage, Curr said, “Iowa was also ahead of New York in laws pertaining to miscegenation. Iowa has traditionally also been a barometer of how presidential elections will turn out. New York State could be on the right side of history. We could be a pioneer or we could follow other states.

“I’m reminded of the Brandeis quote: ‘When I placed my hand on the Bible I swore to uphold the Constitution. I did not swear on the Constitution to uphold the Bible.’”

Clergy members were also in attendance. Episcopalian minister Ellen Brauza works with LGBT advocacy ministries. “The things that many are afraid of are phantoms,” she said. “No church would be forced to marry same-sex couples. Just as Catholic Churches are not forced to marry the divorced.”

Van Ness agreed. “The Catholic Church does not recognize divorce,” she said, “but New York State does and carries it out.”

Brauza added, “Some of the antics of straight people are disgraceful. Weekend or multiple marriages. Divorce is a sad necessity but those who marry and divorce many times exemplify the shallowness of commitment. I’ve seen same-sex couples with a level of dedication and love that deserve the right to marry. I have rights that I enjoy and am required to work for the same rights for others.”

For local lobbyists it was a long day of traveling to and from Albany. A highlight of ENJ Day for local LGBT leader Kitty Lambert of OUTspoken for Equality was when Hoyt introduced her to O’Donnell and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the state’s first openly gay and lesbian members of the Assembly. “Getting the chance to meet with and talk to them was a wonderful experience and a reminder of how close we are to winning this,“ said Lambert.

lucy yau

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