Last edited: February 14, 2005

Legislature Departs Albany on an Upbeat Note (Go Figure!)

LGNY, June 30, 2000

An Analysis Paul Schindler

In years past, the days leading up to the annual adjournment of the State Senate and Assembly have provided familiar disappointments and even unpleasant surprises for the lesbian and gay community. In a number of recent sessions, the Senate has left Albany determinedly faithful to the Republican leadership’s insistence that no vote be taken on hate crimes and nondiscrimination measures that would include protections for our community. In 1998, the mad dash for the door produced a draconian HIV names reporting and partner notification bill that shattered a long standing consensus on the importance of confidential testing.

But last week’s conclusion of the 2000 session of the Legislature suggested that something more might have gone down January 1 than the eradication of the Y2K bug.

In a whirlwind 24-hour period, the legislature came to final agreement on the long-sought hate crimes law, different versions of which had earlier passed each chamber, and the state repealed its archaic, if constitutionally moot, sodomy law.

The successful conclusion of the hate crimes effort was a bit anticlimactic, though welcome to many, though not all, lesbian and gay activists. (Some activists, particularly among people of color communities remain concerned about the implications of giving greater discretion about enhanced crime penalties.) The big mo’ on hate crimes had occurred several weeks earlier when Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, of upstate Rensselaer near Albany, dropped his long standing obstinacy and allowed a floor vote on the measure.

As reported in the last issue of LGNY, Bruno’s change of heart was forced by an escalating political campaign waged by the Hate Crimes Coalition, a group of more than 100 community groups and led by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and backed up on the floor by Manhattan Senator Tom Duane, the only openly gay member. With opinion polls showing ever larger majorities in support of the law, and Republicans facing reversals in traditional strongholds such as Nassau County, advocates for a law played on incumbents’ fears of retribution in November. In the end, 24 of the Senate’s 36 Republicans voted in favor of the bill.

Still, supporters fretted that something might come unglued as the Senate tried to iron out differences between its bill, put forward by Republican Governor George Pataki, and the Assembly’s (read Democratic) version. ADL’s Howie Katz and ESPA’s Matt Foreman and Tim Sweeney have tales of 11th hour scurrying to keep the measure on track. Katz said he received assurances that the Catholic Conference, in years past a foe of measures offering lesbians and gays protections, had sidelined itself this year, but worried that an ego clash between Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (Lower East Side) might do in the effort. Katz explained that a version that largely tracked the Governor’s proposal, but whose legislative history identifies it as an Assembly bill, provided the face-saving indispensable only to the truly powerful. The bill passed in the early morning hours June 23 as the legislators were checking traffic reports on the Thruway.

For all but the truly wonkish, the sodomy repeal came as something more of a - does pleasant really do justice to the feeling? - surprise. Advocates working on the issue of sexual assault had been pushing all session for a major reform of state laws concerning rape and other sexual violence. In tandem with that effort, ESPA worked to remove the state’s age-old ban on oral and anal sodomy between unmarried people. The State’s Court of Appeals had ruled the law unconstitutional way back in 1980, but according to ESPA that did not preclude a certain amount of coercive official mischief. In isolated cases where a gay or lesbian couple was discovered doing it in a lovers’ lane, police would charge them with sodomy to force them to cop to a lighter charge. With the repeal, nobody can make the argument that we are lawbreakers by virtue of what we do in bed. Bigots have lost another crutch.

About an hour before the Gay Pride March June 25, Duane, Foreman, Sweeney, and Katz met with the press to outline the gains made in Albany this year. Asked how the hate crimes’ bills passage would impact prospects for SONDA, the state nondiscrimination law, also blocked year after year by the Senate Republicans, Duane said several recent development boded well for progress next year.

"The hate crime bill opens up the opportunity to push SONDA out to the floor," Duane argued. "Nobody can any longer say that state law doesn’t include the category of sexual orientation."

Duane added, "The removal of the sodomy statute also eliminates any lingering criminal stigma" surrounding lesbians and gay men that in the past has posed obstacles to consideration of equal rights.

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