Last edited: February 14, 2005

Legislature Wraps Up with a Bang

New York Blade, June 30, 2000

By Inga Sorensen

Gay civil rights activists say that, when the 223rd session of the New York State Legislature came to a close June 23, it marked the completion of the most productive session to date.

That assessment was prompted by the passage of a hate crimes bill that includes sexual orientation, and sweeping sexual assault reform legislation that activists say will formally repeal the state’s "consensual sodomy" statute.

Efforts to pass a hate crimes bill had been unsuccessful for more than a decade because the Republican-controlled Senate had balked at the inclusion of "sexual orientation." But on June 7, after some intensive grassroots lobbying in the districts of targeted GOP lawmakers, a hate crimes measure cleared the Senate. That bill was introduced at the request of Republican Gov. George Pataki and sponsored by Manhattan Republican Sen. Roy Goodman. It passed by a 48-12 vote, with the support of 24 Democrats and 24 of 36 Republican senators; one Democratic senator was absent.

The Senate measure then had to be reconciled with a hate crimes bill passed in February by the Democratic-controlled Assembly. Both measures sought to stiffen penalties for the commission of crimes based on, among other categories, sexual orientation.

Both houses approved a final version of a hate crimes bill in the early hours of June 23. It is similar to the Senate’s bill, but also includes coverage of crimes motivated by bias against one’s "religious practices."

"This was the most successful year that we have ever had in the New York State Legislature," says state Sen. Thomas Duane, a Manhattan Democrat who is openly gay and openly HIV-positive.

The first-term senator placed passage of a hate crimes bill at the top of his agenda. After the GOP leadership refused to allow a vote on a hate crimes bill last year and earlier this year, Duane offered a ‘motion to discharge’ a hate crimes bill, which would have brought it directly to the floor for a vote. Although the motion was voted down, Duane says the vote put pressure on Republican senators, particularly in swing districts on Long Island, in Westchester County, and on Manhattan’s East Side, to push the GOP leadership to allow a vote on hate crimes legislation.

In addition to utilizing the process to accomplish his goals, Duane also got personal with colleagues, telling them about his own experience as a victim of anti-gay violence. (Duane says he was badly beaten in 1983 in the parking lot of a Long Island gay bar by perpetrators who used anti-gay epithets.)

"I do believe my having a seat at the table made a difference," he tells the Blade.

In its push to pass a hate crimes bill, the Empire State Pride Agenda, a statewide gay advocacy group, distributed more than 150,000 postcards depicting a wound with 11 sutures, one for each year of Senate inaction, and passed out thousands of pointed fliers identifying Republican senators — by name and photo — who ESPA felt could move the legislation. (All 211 seats of the state Legislature are up for grabs this November.)

"Some lawmakers are feeling vulnerable," says Matt Foreman, ESPA’s executive director. "They knew it could be a campaign issue."

With Pataki’s signature, the bill will become the first statewide law in New York to specifically include civil rights protections for lesbians and gay men.

Foreman also is hailing passage of sexual assault reform legislation that he says will formally repeal the state’s "consensual sodomy" statute and commit the legislature to revamping what activists call the penal law’s "antiquated classification of sexual assaults." The reform, says ESPA, will result in the elimination of the crimes of "sodomy" and the term "deviate sexual intercourse" from New York’s criminal laws.

According to ESPA, a state consensual sodomy statute that outlaws oral and anal sex

between unmarried couples was ruled unconstitutional by the state Court of Appeal in 1980, yet has remained on the books.

The reform measure states that the legislature "intends to modernize and consolidate such language in subsequent legislation." According to ESPA, the measure puts into law "the Legislature’s intent to establish the single offense category of Criminal Sexual Assault, to encompass the various types of criminal acts now falling under Rape, Sodomy and other nomenclature."

"This is more than a great symbolic victory — it will also stop the isolated instances in which police use the statute to target gay couples they find in ‘lovers lanes,’" Foreman said via a written statement. He adds that, while these charges are not prosecuted, individuals are frequently compelled to plead to some other offense.

ESPA says the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the New York City Alliance

Against Sexual Assault, made the repeal of the terminology one of their top priorities among a broad range of reforms.

In a media statement, Susan Xenarios, director of the St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Crime Victim Treatment Center and co-chair of the Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims, said: "We’ve wanted to get rid of this stigmatizing language for years — we know firsthand how it pains sexual assault survivors, whether they are gay or straight. This was a great collaborative effort between the victim advocate and gay communities."

ESPA also cites passage of a state budget in May as a success because it includes $2.7 million to meet the non-HIV needs of gay New Yorkers.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health and Human Services Network, a coalition of 45 groups coordinated by ESPA, lobbied for the funding. According to ESPA, the appropriation marked the third consecutive year of non-HIV funding targeted to the gay community. In 1998, $1 million was allocated to start 11 programs. In 1999, a $2 million appropriation added another 16 programs. ESPA says the $2.7 million for fiscal year 2000-2001 will help sustain the existing programs and launch at least a dozen new programs.

"Of course we’d like to see more, but it’s something," Duane tells the Blade.

Another person pleased with the budget is Michael Kink, executive director of Housing Works, an AIDS advocacy organization. The legislature’s budget restored cuts proposed by the governor in March and increased funding for HIV and AIDS services. It also included provisions deregulating the sale of clean syringes and decriminalized their possession.

"I think there has been significant progress getting Republicans and non-New York City members of the legislature to begin to understand the reality of how HIV is spread," he says.

The budget also included a $10 million increase in the Homeless Housing Assistance Program. But one of Housing Works major causes — passage of the Work and Wellness Act of 2000, also known as a Medicaid buy-in measure, which would have allowed the disabled to keep their Medicaid benefits if they returned to work — floundered.

On June 5, the Work and Wellness Act of 2000 unanimously passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate. The governor, meanwhile, said he did not want to reopen talks on financial matters with the budget already approved.

The Medicaid buy-in program is a federally-funded initiative with strong backing from U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, a Long Island Republican who is in a highly publicized Senate race with Democrat Hillary Clinton. Housing Works says all that was required from state lawmakers and the governor was statutory authority to structure a program allowing New York to apply for tens of millions of dollars in federal funding by July 31.

Two days before the session ended, roughly 150 demonstrators descended upon Albany to urge for passage of the Work and Wellness Act. A handful of protesters chained themselves together in front of the governor’s office and were arrested. The same day, a coalition of groups representing people with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and mental illnesses threatened to hold lawmakers accountable and announced a voter registration drive to do just that.

Duane tells the Blade there is a chance the lawmakers could be called back into session sometime in late summer or early fall. He says if that’s the case, he’ll intends for the Work and Wellness Act to be on the radar screen.

In other legislative news, the Dignity for All Students Act, which sought to bar discrimination and harassment in New York’s public schools based on real or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability, cleared the Assembly Education Committee May 23 by a 20-7 vote, but the movement ended there. In addition to prohibiting discrimination and harassment, the measure sought to create a program to foster harassment-free school environments. It also would implement a reporting mechanism so that the state could compile data on harassment and discrimination in schools across New York.

And the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which would add sexual orientation to the state’s human rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodation and credit, didn’t make it either. Dubbed SONDA, the bill has passed the Assembly every year since 1992, but the Senate majority has never allowed a vote on the bill. Still, SONDA passed the Assembly June 13 by its largest margin yet, with a 109-39 vote.

Says Foreman: "We’ll haven’t given up on those measures. … This was just the beginning."

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