April 28, 2009 arrived with excitement levels high as close to 2,000 people descended on Albany for Equality and Justice Day, Empire State Pride Agenda’s annual day of lobbying. Busses and carloads of LGBT people and allies traveled from across New York State to have their voices heard by State Senators and Assembly members.
Equality and Justice Day is an opportunity for constituents to speak to their elected officials about legislation affecting the LGBT community. This year constituents met with their Senators and Assembly members to discuss three pieces of legislation. GENDA (the gender expression non-discrimination act) prohibits transgender discrimination in housing, employment, education, credit and public accommodations. The NYS Assembly passed GENDA in 2008, 108-34.
The Dignity for All Students Act creates a statewide public school policy prohibiting harassment and bullying based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The Assembly passed the bill in 2009 by an overwhelmingly positive vote of 131-5.
The Marriage Equality bill legalizes civil marriage for same-sex couples. Same-sex marriage is now legal in Maine, Iowa and three states bordering New York - Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts, as well as Canada. Supporters of marriage equality hope to join their neighbors soon by allowing same-sex couples access to marriage and the 1, 324 New York rights and responsibilities that come with the designation of civil marriage. The Assembly passed marriage equality legislation in 2007 by a vote of 85-61.
After the well executed morning registration process participants gathered in the Albany Convention Center for the welcome breakfast featuring Governor David Paterson, Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda Alan Van Capelle, Senator Tom Duane and Assemblymen Daniel O’Donnell and Richard Gottfried.
Van Capelle, a rousing and inspirational speaker excited the crowd with news that this is the first Equality and Justice Day to be sold out. He went on to introduce the Governor who stepped up to the podium amidst shouts of David! David! David! Paterson, a popular advocate for LGBT rights proclaimed that “we are going to change the law and change the culture of the way people treat each other”. In the first 1 ½ months of his administration Governor Paterson mandated that NYS recognize marriages performed outside of the state and now, in the first month of his second year he “wants to sign the marriage equality bill!” Paterson has introduced a marriage equality bill similar to the one introduced in 2007, which passed the Assembly but never got to the Senate.
Senator Duane, the first openly gay man to serve in the NYS Legislature, encouraged people to tell their stories to their elected officials as he energized the crowd with the chant “It’s not if, it’s when, we demand it now,” referencing the three pieces of legislation at the center of Equality and Justice Day. O’Donnell, the Assembly sponsor of the Marriage Equality Bill, shouted out that we need to remind religious leaders that there is separation of church and state. The Assembly sponsor of GENDA, Richard Gottfried, pointed out how embarrassing it is that many states and cities are ahead of New York when it comes to protections for students, gender expression protections and marriage equality.
Groups then split off to meet with their elected officials and others gathered with their groups to plan a strategy for the afternoon meetings. At lunchtime, participants grabbed boxed lunches and headed to Capitol Park for the highly attended and much anticipated afternoon rally. Hand-made signs pumped up and down and chants rang out supporting GENDA, Dignity and Marriage Equality. Again, Van Capelle rallied the huge crowd before introducing the MC of the rally, Alan Cumming. Cumming, a Broadway, film and television actor, introduced a line of speakers including Jewish and Episcopal leaders, PFLAG member and mother of Anne Hathaway who read a spirited letter written by her daughter, Theresa Sayward, a Republican assemblywoman who voted for marriage equality in 2007, union representatives and an ACLU representative.
Late afternoon workshops and closing remarks brought the day to an end. Weary travelers hopped back onto busses and into cars thinking about how to carry the momentum forward. It was a grand day in the fight for basic human rights.
Journal of (the text of) my first published article