Life After SONDA

Gay Politics Will Never Be the Same

There was no photo op when George Pataki signed the state gay rights bill in the privacy of his office last week. It struck some activists as telling that the governor kept his promise to the gay community with such a lack of ceremony. But no one was in a mood to quibble. After a 31-year struggle, SONDA, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, was finally law.

If you are a homo from Herkimer, a county nestled in the Adirondacks, SONDA should make a real difference. Before the bill passed, only 20 jurisdictions in the state offered legal protections to lesbians and gay men, and Herkimer County was not among them. But in New York City, which has had a gay rights law since 1986, SONDA's greatest impact is likely to be on politics. The bill's passage, against the wishes of the powerful Conservative Party, affirms that the queer movement has become a force. Now the struggle is over who gets to speak for it, who determines the issues that get raised, and who decides how public money entering the community will be spent.

Before SONDA, the major gay players in Albany were two progressive Democrats, Senator Tom Duane and Assembly Member Deborah Glick. Now there is a new power base. The Empire State Pride Agenda's crucial role in lobbying for SONDA and getting it passed has made ESPA the state's most influential gay group. But in order to get its work on this and other legislation done, ESPA has bypassed Duane and Glick, turned its back on faithful allies, and made deals with newly simpatico Republicans. ESPA's authority is changing the rules of state gay politics. Elected officials have essentially run the show. Now power is shifting from party-affiliated pols to an independent lobby.

Tom Duane, hero or demagogue? It Depends on where you stand within the queer movement.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Tom Duane, hero or demagogue? It Depends on where you stand within the queer movement.

But the conflict that surrounded SONDA is more than just a pissing contest. It is also a struggle between haves and have-nots, between warring definitions of what it means to be queer, and between very different styles of activism. Under its baffling surface, the battle of SONDA was a clash over the future of liberation politics.

The hostilities began in 1997, when ESPA concluded that Duane, then a councilmember, would be unable to move the city domestic-partner benefits act. Speaker Peter Vallone was antsy about it, and Duane was hardly the person to ease his mind. So ESPA approached Rudy Giuliani. By agreeing to sponsor the legislation, he gave Vallone political cover, and the bill was eventually passed. In exchange, ESPA stayed neutral in the '97 mayoral race, abandoning Democratic challenger Ruth Messinger, a pioneering advocate of gay rights. Duane, like other progressives, was enraged, but he was even angrier about being cut out of negotiations over his own bill. Fast forward to 2002. ESPA endorses George Pataki, and, mirabile dictu, Joe Bruno, the senate Republican leader, agrees to let SONDA come to the floor, ending a decade-old logjam. Once again, Duane is sideswiped. Once again, ESPA concludes that he is unable to maneuver beyond the Democratic leadership, as passing SONDA will require. As one insider notes, "Tom had nothing to offer Pataki or Bruno"—but ESPA and its 25,000 members did.

Duane's response was to distinguish himself from ESPA by introducing an amendment on transgender rights when SONDA reached the senate floor last week. But his timing was odd, since the bill as devised by the more liberal assembly made no mention of the T-word. Why wasn't this issue dealt with at the get-go? Sources say Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver was worried about his "marginals," as Democrats call their members from swing districts. And ESPA was no friendlier to the idea of including transpeople in SONDA. They feared it would kill the bill, but there may have been more to their position than that. Melissa Sklarz, the state's first transperson to hold office (she is a judicial delegate), recalls being told by ESPA in 2000 that it was "a lesbian and gay organization" and not a lobby for people like her.

Still, a school anti-bullying bill passed by the assembly did mention the T-word—so why not SONDA? Sklarz says Deborah Glick, who shepherded SONDA in the assembly, was unwilling to push her colleagues; Glick says Sklarz is naive about the difference between creating a new bill and amending an old one. Like ESPA, Glick had reason to believe that Bruno might use any change in language to delay or defeat SONDA. "We didn't want to give the senate an easy out," she explains.

Orphaned as they were, trans activists managed to win a victory of sorts, thanks to Duane's amendment. It failed, but 19 out of 25 senate Democrats voted for it, putting the T-word on the state political map. And that's not all Duane unleashed. Rising on the senate floor, he took a final swing at ESPA, decrying the "vicious and mean-spirited campaign" against him, including "threats to withhold money." Sources say Duane received calls from key contributors after word spread that he might withhold his support for SONDA without the amendment. Duane insists he had made it clear to ESPA that there was no danger of that. But by failing to state his position publicly, Duane gave his enemies an opening to attack him in full view of the eager media.

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