News & Politics

Life After SONDA


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.

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.

But then, hadn’t Duane—and other gay Democrats who know reporters—attacked ESPA for its elitism? And hadn’t the assembly cut a chunk of change from certain gay programs that had been funded (but not permanently) by the governor? ESPA had promoted these non-HIV programs, and now it felt smacked by the Democrats for cozying up to Pataki. The battle was on.

Instead of buddy hugs after SONDA passed, David Paterson, the newly elected leader of senate Democrats—and an eloquent advocate for gay rights—got a harangue from Jeff Soref, a major gay fundraiser and former ESPA board member. “I told [Paterson] he had lost control,” says Soref. “He sat idly by while Tom bellowed.” Soref was already pissed at Paterson for backing the amendment, and as for Duane, among the milder epithets Soref uses to describe him are “bully” and “demagogue.” Their animosity is likely to play out in more than verbal ways. It is widely believed that Duane would like to run for Manhattan borough president when Virginia Fields’s term expires in 2005. He will need all the help he can get in a crowded field likely to include a lesbian candidate, Councilmember Margarita Lopez. Duane could garner key party support by justifying the Democrats’ attack on ESPA. But when it comes to attracting money, Soref is a serious liability, since he wields great influence among the handful of wealthy homosexuals who give generously to gay political campaigns.

Duane looks back on SONDA’s passage with a certain irony. “The Christians were praying for my soul,” he quips, “but my allies were telling me to go to hell.”

The greatest irony is that all of these combatants are Democrats. In fact, Soref is a member of the Democratic National Committee, reportedly in line to become its treasurer. But sources say that after ESPA endorsed Pataki, Soref received angry phone calls from leaders of the national party. “I can’t say people are pleased with me,” he says, “but I would support anyone who backs this agenda.” So, apparently, would ESPA’s board, though it is composed entirely of Democrats, according to executive director Matt Foreman. He, too, calls himself “a die-hard Democrat,” but adds, “I’m no longer going to stand on statements that sound good and get us nowhere. We want deliverables.”

In keeping with this show-me attitude, ESPA paid former state Republican Party head Bill Powers more than $100,000 to push SONDA, despite the many times Powers courted Conservative Party support for GOP candidates by citing their opposition to gay rights. Retaining Powers shows that, like him, ESPA prizes efficacy over ideology. More than any other pressure group in New York’s gay movement, this one knows how to play the game. That leaves Duane and Glick at a disadvantage, since they are loyal members of a party that controls neither the governor’s office nor the senate. The relative powerlessness of the Democrats makes it inevitable that a gay lobby interested in “deliverables” will build bridges to the dominant Republicans. That’s what key unions did in the last election, and the Democrats suffered their defection without attacking them. But, as Foreman points out, “They’re happy to point to the key gay group and say, ‘Oh, we’re offended!’ Cut me a break.”

Flush with victory, ESPA has its guns set on winning “full equality under the law within 10 years.” The group’s agenda includes reforming the state’s human rights code (by changing the word sex to gender) and shortening the time it takes to adjudicate a case (more than 400 days on average). Even same-sex marriage is not beyond Foreman’s imagining, “but we need to do this the professional way, and that involves focus groups, polling, and testing messages with targeted subgroups of the gettable middle.” This is not Duane’s idea of an effective strategy. As a product of the gay liberation movement, his approach is to form alliances with other minorities and move from a fired-up activist base. Transpeople are a natural constituency for him. But most of ESPA’s members are what cops call “citizens”: people of some means. They are unlikely to bear the brunt of budget cuts, so they have little to lose from making alliances with Pataki—and little to gain from pushing the trans agenda. For Duane’s people, it’s the reverse.

The battle of SONDA raises a larger question for the queer movement. “We still have not resolved the debate that’s raged for 30 years about who is part of our community and who gets shut out,” says Charles King, co-president of Housing Works, which advocates for people with AIDS. As long as all homos were members of an out-group, this class conflict was kept relatively in check. But as the movement succeeds, the division between gay haves and queer have-nots is exploding on many fronts. The contours of this schism were visible in the two queer groups that took separate buses up to Albany last week: one, supporting SONDA, was mostly well dressed and white, while the other, backing Duane’s amendment, was decked out and diverse.

Every group that enters the corridors of power goes through a clash between those who are poised to benefit from the system and those who are not. Success breeds struggle, and in that sense SONDA’s passage marked the moment when gay politics became typical. The left-outs have yet to find a leader, but they will. A queer Al Sharpton is slouching toward Stonewall to be born—and s/he will probably be a trannie.

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