It was a bit surreal to be back in Albany, in the legislative building and the convention hall. I was last there, as some may remember, a little bit under two months ago for the Family Planning Advocates of NY conference and lobby day. It also just so happened to be the day that ex-Governor Spitzer was revealed to be a customer with a high end prostitution ring. Even weirder, he was supposed to speak at the conference that morning, and canceled 30 minutes before he was supposed to take the stage. And the group I was lobbying with first heard the news in the afternoon from a gloating Republican legislator who will remain nameless, as we gritted our teeth in strained smiles.
Now that I don’t feel so much like NY is doomed or that the incident will cost the Dems the November election, I now see the whole bizarre, hectic experience as kind of cool. But at the time, I can assure you that it fucking sucked.
Equality and Justice day on Tuesday was much better. As I was joking with my new friends for the day, any day in Albany that doesn’t involve a prostitution scandal, I now consider to be a good day in Albany.
First of all, let me say that The Empire State Pride Agenda did an excellent job with organizing the event (well, with the exception of the lunch mix up). I honestly thought that their people were funny, energized and all around great. I also thought that they did a generally excellent job with diversity in terms of sex, age, and gender identity, though racial diversity was a bit lacking. For the most part, I thought that they displayed a genuine commitment to intersectionality (more on that in a bit). Here would also be a good place to note that they broke a record this year — 1300 people turned out for E&J Day!
The attendees were really cool, too. Since we were divided up based on district, I was separated from the group that I came with and spent the day with people I had never met. Once you get to know me, you’ll probably have a difficult time shutting me up, but when around strangers I’m usually very shy and quiet. But I felt really comfortable around everyone very quickly — there seems to be something about activism that brings people together. I think that it’s instantly knowing that these total strangers share your values and took the time and trouble to come out for something that you also care about. In my experience, it’s incredibly bonding, and this was not an exception.
My favorite part of the day was the rally outside of the legislative building — despite the fact that it was fucking freezing. I was so impressed with the speakers they got to come out, and I also took an instant liking to the MCs.
First up was Donna Rose, who was listed in the conference information as being a nationally-known transgender activist. I thought that I recognized her name, and when she started speaking she gave me the clue I needed to place her. She used to be on the board of the Human Rights Campaign. She is the transwoman who quit in protest of the organization’s shameful stance on ENDA and wrote this brave, kick ass resignation letter. (For the record, it seemed like no one from HRC (officially) was present at the event, though I don’t want to speculate as to why that was.) Greatly admiring her protest against HRC, I was enthralled, and she was an enigmatic speaker. Unsurprisingly but very importantly, she gave a speech about how you can’t take the T out of LGBT, the importance of community and how we mustn’t turn our backs on the rights of some people unless we want to turn our backs on human rights. I couldn’t agree more, was inspired by her speech, and so heartened to hear the roars of approval from the crowd.
Next, Rev. David Parsons from Lutherans Concerned spoke. His speech really touched me and had my eyes welled up with tears — not for the first or last time of the day. He came out and explained that he is a white, straight man, and that as a result, he has never had to face questions about who he is, where he’s going and whether or not he has a right to be there. His eyes held true humility as he spoke about when he became an LGBT ally. In the 80s, he apparently worked in an opera theater with many gay men. And like so many, he saw the AIDS epidemic hit. He talked about watching his friends die, watching people not care, and then watching his friends’ parents go and take everything they used to own from their sons’ partners. He spoke about being requested to do same-sex marriage ceremonies, and having to explain that he would perform a ceremony but could not legally marry them. And he began to cry as he spoke to “those who were told by their churches that they were not good as their Creator made them.” I’m getting choked up thinking about it now . . . I’m an atheist who very rarely appreciates religious speakers, but I absolutely loved this guy.
H. Alexander Robinson, who is the chief executive officer of the National Black Justice Coalition, spoke next, and he was great, too. His sentiments were similar to those of Donna Rose, but he also talked about race issues. He discussed how civil rights are human rights, the importance of community and how unless we fight for the rights of everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion or gender identity, we are leaving our community behind. I was really happy that they got someone to speak about the intersections between racial justice and LGBT rights, and to connect them as one social justice movement.
They also had a speaker who got to talk more directly about the intersections between LGBT and feminist movements. President of NARAL Pro-Choice NY Kelli Conlin spoke, and I was really surprised and happy to see her there. You know, NARAL (and other reproductive rights organizations, including Planned Parenthood, who I work for) has a lot of work to do when it comes to intersectional politics and adopting a reproductive justice framework. I’m not gonna lie. But I thought the fact that she came down in solidarity with the LGBT community was a great step, and the kind that is taken too infrequently. Alan Lubin from New York State United Teachers also spoke about how LGBT rights are a worker’s rights issue.
Of course, we also did some lobbying. There were three issues on the table. The first is the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which would prohibit harassment of students in school (on the basis of virtually everything), change school policies regarding harassment and provide the support that these schools need to live up to the requirements. The second bill is the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which would expand anti-discrimination legislation to include discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in areas such as housing, employment and education. And lastly was, of course, Marriage Equality.
We ended up meeting with the offices of three legislators, one senator and two assembly members (unfortunately, my assemblyman was the one we didn’t get to meet with). We didn’t get to meet with any of the legislators directly, which always disappoints people who are lobbying for the first time (including me), but is generally agreed to actually be preferable. I’ve been lobbying twice before with Planned Parenthood, and things generally went great . . . but not so much when we had to meet with the actual legislators. You see, they’re politicians. And politicians have big egos. Politicians also love to talk about themselves.
(Funny, only tangentially related story: the guy I mentioned above who broke the Spitzer news to my group absolutely loved to talk about himself. He was also a white dude, and our particular lobbying group was, after a few others drifted off, made up of several white women and several black males who were mostly teenagers. It seemed that he felt really uncomfortable, because out of nowhere — we were discussing funding for sex education — he started talking emphatically about he used to own his own business, and he believed in equal opportunity for everyone, so it didn’t matter if someone was a woman, or what color they were, he hired the best person for the job! No, really, he did! There were many frozen faces with tight, polite smiles staring back at him. In trying to relate to the teenagers, he also said that he understood where they were coming from, was once a teenager himself, and knew how important it was to have “the real scoop.” In short, the visit was painful.)
Legislative aides, on the other hand, tend to listen a lot more — or at least make more of an effort to pretend that they are listening. They don’t talk much, except to ask a few questions, tend to write things down and actually give people time to make their personal cases for support of the legislation. It has also been my experience — and don’t ask me why, because I can’t explain it — that the aides of Republican legislators tend to be more liberal than their bosses. On more than one occasion, they’ve actually said that they support the legislation and have been talking to the senator/assembly member about it and were happy to have the additional information to present. And quite frankly, legislators take the opinions of their staff a lot more seriously than the opinions of lobby groups. It can actually be easier to get them on your side by using a middle(wo)man.
Anyway, I thought that the visits went well. The meeting with the Senator’s office, the one we expected to be the most difficult, was a bit shaky. But I think that we got out okay, and that there’s a good chance he’ll at least support DASA. The second meeting, in my opinion, went excellently, and the third seemed to me to go much better than expected.
The people in my group had a lot of great stories to tell, and I was tremendously impressed by their willingness and bravery in opening themselves up to total strangers. As someone who really hates feeling vulnerable, this courage is really something that I admire. In discussing DASA, several teenagers told their painful personal stories with bullying in school and the horrible responses or lack of responses from administrators. We also had several transwomen in our group who told their personal stories of discrimination, bigotry and violence. One woman in particular had me and several others in the room — including the aide — choking back tears. As I didn’t get their permission to do so, I don’t feel right telling their stories here, even anonymously; they’re not mine to tell. But it was a moving and emotional experience.
For my part, I didn’t talk a whole lot in the legislative visits. There were things I could have said, but I felt like it was more important for people to have the chance to tell their own stories, especially since there were more of us present than had time to speak. I think that many allies, definitely including myself, find this to be a difficult line to walk. You want to be there and show your support, and at the same time not appropriate messages or take time away from those who the issues actually affect personally. It also drives me up a wall that people tend to take the opinions of allies more seriously — men when they talk about sexism, white people when they talk about racism, straight people when they talk about homophobia and transphobia — and I think that it’s a problem in itself. I also know that while it sucks and I want to see it change as soon as possible, this is a big part of the reason why allies are important.
So I ended up speaking to only one aide. He was the one male we had a meeting with, and was a bit of a macho guy with a hard, expressionless face. At first, he acted fairly hostile, but seemed to let down his defenses a little bit by the end. As we were leaving, he shook all of our hands, and I was the last out of the room. I was feeling like he needed a push. So I said to him (in a somewhat politic and pandering way) “I just want to point out that this isn’t an issue that only a small group of people care about. I’m a straight, non-trans woman (I doubted he would know the term cisgender), and these issues are important to me, too. I traveled four hours to come here today to show my support, and so did lots of other people — and all of the straight, non-trans people I know also support these issues. It matters to a lot of people.” And again, while it really pisses me off that it took that little speech to do it, he opened up and seemed really energetic and supportive for the first time — he actually said something along the lines of how it was good to have the additional information we brought, “and you know, it’s really hard and important because there is so much ignorance surrounding these issues, and we (I think he meant “we in Albany”) really need to work to change that.”
And I’m right about the broad support. It shocked me to learn that the Pride Agenda’s recent poll showed 78% of New Yorkers support GENDA. In 2006, their poll showed that 53% supported full marriage rights, and since support for marriage equality seems to be increasing everywhere, we can probably assume that it’s currently at least slightly higher — especially since at the time, 72% supported civil unions. And really, how many people are willing to stand up and say that they support unchecked bullying and discrimination against children in schools? They’re out there, but I’d be shocked to learn that they’re a majority. Progress is slowly but surely being made — in fact, the day after Equality and Justice Day, GENDA was passed through the assembly’s Government Operations Committee.
Anyway, I guess that’s about it (and probably more than enough)! You can read more about the day here, here, here and of course at the Pride Agenda’s blog. Thanks to all of the sponsors who provided scholarships for registration and transportation, because without it many people, including myself, would not have been able to attend. And thanks to KaeLyn for inviting me! By any chance, were any readers there?
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- Department of Housing and Urban Development Announces Protections for LGBT Community by Cara October 24, 2009
- I Met Hillary Clinton by Cara July 23, 2008
- Remembrance and Action by Jack November 18, 2008