Thursday, April 30, 2009

LGBT Activists Pour Into Albany

GayCityNews - LGBT Activists Pour Into Albany

By: PAUL SCHINDLER

In Albany on Tuesday, Governor David Paterson lent his passion and willingness to frame LGBT equality as a question of civil rights to the cause of marriage equality. Senator Thomas Duane, an out gay Chelsea Democrat, displayed a jovial enthusiasm reminiscent of Senator Ted Kennedy when he's at the top of his game. And Upper West Side Democratic Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, the Legislature's other out gay Irishman, presented an argument, backed by his success in steering marriage equality through his chamber and delivered with his trademark lawyerly precision, about how a winning majority can be cobbled together.

But as more than 2,000 grassroots activists, in Albany April 28 for the Empire State Pride Agenda's (ESPA) Equality & Justice Day lobbying effort, gathered at lunchtime on the lawn in front of the State Capitol, it was Teresa Sayward, an Assembly Republican from Willsboro in the "North Country," well upstate from the capital, who delivered the most telling case for just how marriage equality could be a winner this year. Looking out at the crowd, Sayward, whose son Glenn is gay, said, "What this makes me wonder is why we don't have more representatives speaking out from the Republican Party, because this is a Republican and a conservative issue. This is a civil rights issue. It's an issue of less government. To the greatest extent possible, government should stay out of your life and let you live it in quiet enjoyment."

When the Assembly in June 2007 first passed the marriage equality bill, whose fate in the closely divided State Senate remains uncertain, Sayward spoke about understanding when Glenn was very young that he was gay and watching as he faced bullying from his peers. She challenged her colleagues: "Let us search our hearts tonight."

Asked by Gay City News Tuesday what she was hearing from her Republican colleagues, particularly on the Senate side, she said, "They have been listening. Have they come far enough? No, they haven't. Will they? I think they will. Especially when they look at my numbers." She explained that she ran unopposed in both 2006 and 2008, but won bigger after she took her marriage vote than before. The Conservative Party dumped her from their line, but on the Independence line she was the biggest vote-getter in the state.

"What I am hearing a lot of," she said, "is, 'Your argument is very compelling and I'm finding it harder and harder to disagree.'"

Sayward's ability to sway her colleagues is a critical factor. The Democrats, whose leader, Queens Senator Malcolm Smith, supports the marriage bill, hold only a 32-30 majority, and several members of that caucus have voiced opposition, most fervently Ruben Diaz, Sr., a harshly anti-gay senator from the Bronx. Advocates, including ESPA, Duane, the bill's Senate sponsor, and Paterson have all acknowledged that Republican votes are needed to get the measure over the top.

Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who is the minority leader, last week told his colleagues that they are free to vote their conscience, a sign the Republicans, at the least, do not wish to be viewed as harshly obstructionist.

For his part, the governor is pressing the marriage equality issue hard, apparently stepping on some toes in the Senate (see Gay City News' exclusive interview with Paterson in this issue). Three weeks ago, he told an Ithaca radio station that the measure should get a vote in the Senate whether or not the votes are there, a position at odds with Albany tradition and Smith's oft-repeated statements on the issue.

After drawing fire from some legislative Democrats -- Duane on New York 1 News said former Governor Eliot Spitzer would have had "a strategy" and already enacted the law -- Paterson introduced the marriage equality bill on April 16, saying, "What we have is not a crisis of issues, we have a crisis of leadership. We're going to fill that vacuum today. I'm going to put a stop to it."

Smith was noticeable for his absence from that press conference, which included Duane, O'Donnell, out lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and four members of Congress.

When he appeared before the activists in Albany on Tuesday, the governor received a standing ovation and sustained chants of "Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave." As he had done on April 16, he likened the push for marriage to other major civil rights struggles, and saying that Proposition 8 should be the catalyst for redoubled efforts, he noted that Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect just six years after the Supreme Court's Dred Scott ruling that marked the abolitionist movement's low point.

Many of those on hand for Equality & Justice Day -- where they were lobbying not only for marriage equality, but also for passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act protecting transgendered New Yorkers and the Dignity for All Students Act anti-bullying measure, also awaiting Senate approval -- chose to embrace Paterson's optimism.

Jeffrey Friedman, who with his husband Andrew Zwerin is raising their five-year-old son Joshua in Rockville Center, talked about the couple's recent conversations with Skelos, their state senator. Arguing that he declared marriage equality would be a conscience vote at least six weeks before the question was due to be called, Friedman said he saw signs of "softening" in his opposition, and then, pointing to young Joshua, noted that Skelos had always been an advocate for children, and stated, "I don't think he could look us in the eye and say no."

Friedman's emphasis on the importance of his family's personal story was a key theme in Albany on Tuesday, and echoed a powerful message that Quinn delivered at the April 16 press conference. She said that when she travels to Albany to lobby marriage equality opponents, she will talk about her life with partner Kim Catullo and challenge them: "Look me in the eye and tell me that Kim and I aren't a family."

According to ESPA, lobbying meetings were held in at least 50 of the 62 Senate offices. Terry Boggis, director of the Center Kids program at the LGBT Community Center, worked with a group of activists, many of them young people, who met with Queens Senator Joseph Addabbo, a Democrat first elected last year. Boggis noted that Addabbo had a gay-friendly record on the City Council, but had not yet signed onto marriage equality. "He's a movable middle kind of guy," she said.

Similarly, City Council candidate Bob Zuckerman and James Whitty of Brooklyn's Lambda Independent Democrats sat down with Senator John Sampson, a Democrat whose district runs from Canarsie to Brownsville/ East New York.

Others focused on the Legislature's leaders. Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein headed up a large contingent from his Upper West Side synagogue, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun -- which included straight allies such as Suzanne Schecter -- and was among a group that sat down with Smith, the Senate majority leader. During the noontime rally, Bronstein, speaking for other leaders of faith in attendance, said, "The religious right has kidnapped the soul of this country for too long."

Paterson was lauded by many of the activists for his forward leadership on marriage equality. Joseph Antenon, a retired school teacher affiliated with B'nai Jeshurun who lives on the Upper East Side and for whom the school bullying issue has particular resonance, said of the governor's speech, "I would have to admit that there were tears in my eyes."

Pete Webb, an Upper West Sider and one of many activists affiliated with the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, said of Paterson, recently beleaguered by low poll numbers, "I'm very impressed with him. He inherited a mess and lately he's really stepped up to the plate to deal with a lot of issues, including marriage equality."

Jennifer Houghtaling, a college student from Rochester in Albany with her girlfriend Jessica Walls, also has a particular interest in the school bullying bill. "I thought it was really awesome," she said of the governor's speech.

Though marriage was clearly a key focus of the day, activist after activist emphasized that all three of the bills being lobbied were important to them. Jay McBride, a transgendered student at SUNY/ Albany, said, "GENDA is important to me as a trans person, but I'm not here for just one thing."

Santiago Peralta of Freeport, who recently graduated from a Manhattan high school, said he was eager to see transgender rights and student bullying laws passed, but added, "I feel really proud to be here to fight for everything that is good for the lesbian and gay community."

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