The students from the Pride club at Jamestown Community College had to be encouraged when Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R–Chautauqua, said he agreed with 95 percent of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA.
But it wasn't enough; he said he couldn't vote for it.
"If you agree with 95 percent of this bill, that's an A plus," said student Mitchell Smigel. "That's the part of the bill that will save lives."
The 5 percent that troubles Goodell? The part that would allow people to choose bathrooms and participate in sports according to their own gender identity. But that's irrelevant when compared to what's at stake, said Hannah Lorenc, another JCC student.
"People are being murdered, and people are killing themselves," she said, because of legal discrimination.
The GENDA bill would add gender identity and expression to the current list of classifications that are protected by state law from discrimination.
Currently, legal discrimination can occur in employment, in rentals and housing and in refusal of business and services. Transgender individuals also are not specifically protected from the threat of, and actual, physical harm.
"If you're a trans person, the state Division of Human Rights doesn't protect you," said Greg Rabb, a member of the Faculty Association of JCC. As president of the Jamestown City Council, Rabb is the only openly gay elected official in the eight counties of Western New York. "We need to separate sex from sexual orientation and gender from gender identity," he said.
The Jamestown group joined a couple hundred like-minded activists in Albany last month for the LGBTQ Day of Advocacy organized by a coalition of labor, education and social justice groups.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Teachers Association member Cheryl Bach brought 16 high school students. The district boasts the oldest gay student alliance in the region, dating back three decades. It was the first time they had partnered with NYSUT and the coalition.
"Our students were quite effective" in office visits, the social studies teacher said. One student shared a personal story of being physically assaulted in sixth grade due to perceived sexual identity, and it was quite emotional. The student was treated with respect in the office, Bach said, but the anecdote probably would not change a vote. Nonetheless, she said, the experience was invaluable.
"They came away feeling empowered as citizens because they met other people feeling the same things they are. The cause is huge to them, and it helped them to know they are not alone." Meeting many more seasoned activists also helped them see that it will be a long struggle, and victories may come over years and decades, Bach said.
Early in the day, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta introduced State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to the activists. The state's top fiscal watchdog said it's time to pass GENDA, a bill that has been pending since DiNapoli was in the Legislature more than a decade ago. DiNapoli urged participants to continue and connect with lawmakers over the long term. "Build relationships so they know who you are, and they know you are watching," he said.
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D–Manhattan, said it is important for LGBTQ activists to get community groups — churches, fraternal organizations, parent groups — to join them. "Partner with the people lawmakers don't expect to hear from on your issues," she said.
The volunteers also advocated for :
- An anti-conversion therapy bill. It would prevent mental health professionals from engaging in efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity of minors. It also would expand the definition of professional misconduct with regard to mental health professionals.
- The Child-Parent Security Act, which recognizes the legitimacy of children born with the aid of assisted reproductive technology and legalizes surrogate parenting contracts. It would provide clear legal procedures to ensure that a child's relationship to his or her parents is legally recognized.
- A bill to designate all single-occupancy bathroom facilities in public places and in all public and private schools as gender neutral.
- A bill to extend the anti-discrimination protections of the Human Rights Law to cover public, as well as private, schools.
Gabriel Blau of the advocacy group Equality New York told the grassroots advocates to keep it all in perspective: "This is a coalition effort; we cannot do this alone. Everything we do is about people, not policies. … Our work starts with, and ends with, people."
Go to the Member Action Center at mac.nysut.org to help pass important LGBTQ legislation in New York State. Go to Facebook and visit: LGBTQ Educators of New York State.