Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pride Agenda's LGBT Equality and Justice Day in Albany

Perhaps it was a good thing that neither I, nor the technicians at the sprawling Convention Center in Albany, could figure out how to hook up my laptop to a local internet service provider. The Empire State Pride Agenda had asked me to come up to the state capital and 'live-blog' Tuesday's LGBT Equality and Justice Day, but the technical snafu meant that I wasn't necessarily tethered to the blogger area which freed me to explore the action around me.

In any case, I'm not sure that 'live-blogging' the event would have been such a hot thing (even if the Human Rights Campaign certainly gave it a good try).

I mean, I could certainly have written stuff like "the energy is tremendous and contagious" - and it sorta was in a non-Swine flu kinda way - but I'm not sure how much of the sentiment might have carried through to blog readers. It's also though to 'live blog' events at which speaker after speaker is talking to a crowd trying to energize them but not necessarily saying something news-worthy.

The truly awe-inspiring thing was the number of people who participated this year. The Pride Agenda estimated it at 2,000 and said that they actually had to turn people back since all buses were packed (or, as the Pride Agenda's Alan Van Capelle put it, the event was a bigger draw than a Madonna concert) and it certainly showed. The Convention Center was packed and more than one speaker mentioned that it wasn't every day that legislators saw that many people gathered for a lobby day on a specific issue.

For those who made it to Albany, the Pride Agenda was urging attendees to lobby for three specific bills - The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), and the marriage equality bill - but it was clear that the large numbers and the excitement in the crowd mostly stemmed from the prospect that a marriage equality might be within reach in New York State.

This follows Governor David Paterson's recent high-profile statements indicating that he would push for passage of a marriage equality bill possibly during the current legislative session. It was certainly a thrill to see him receive an Obama-like rock-star welcome by the crowd gathered at the Center but, as much as I like the Governor, I couldn't help but feel underwhelmed.

First, after shocking the body politic earlier this month by saying that he would push for a vote on the bill - whether the votes for passage were there or not - the Governor back-tracked a bit last week by telling reporters that he would follow the State Senate Majority Leader's lead on whether to push for a Senate vote (the Assembly passed a marriage equality bill in 2007 and is expected to do so again if a similar bill reaches the floor; the Senate majority has never allowed a similar bill to reach the floor for a vote).

The current Senate Majority Leader is, of course, Senator Malcom Smith, who - like Paterson - is the first African-American person to hold the post - and someone who has shown great leadership on marriage equality in the past. But with most marriage equality advocates lining up behind Paterson's marriage equality push, Smith has resisted the pressure to move on such a bill, and has said that he won't allow a vote unless he is certain that the votes are there to ensure passage.

Some have said that his reluctance doesn't necessarily come from pragmatism but, instead, stems from the political interests that allowed him to become majority leader (if you remember, his nomination was hijacked by three Democrats, including homophobic Senator Ruben Diaz, who said they would not support him unless he acceded to their demands, Diaz' demand being that the Senate would not vote on a marriage equality bill in the current session).

Anyway, after Paterson's big speech, I was invited to a press conference with the Governor where I was also surprised to hear him say that he had yet to personally lobby any legislator on the issue. I can't say whether this is how it's done with Albany on other bills, but I would have thought that the Governor might have been working on certain legislators for support of what he certainly has called one of his top legislative priorities. Let's hope he begins to do so soon.

With the morning speeches done, Equality & Justice Day participants headed to the legislative offices and quickly jammed-up the lines to the elevators. Then again, what would you expect with 2,000 folk hurrying to make it to the scheduled visits? The mood, though, was... eh... well, tremendous and contagious (take it from me and the HRC).

I tagged along as a number of people walked into the office of NYS Assemblyperson Barbara S. Lifton. She represents the 125th Assembly District upstate New York (Cortland and Tompkins counties) and expressed support for all three bills.

But, proving that not all legislative visits are all boring and dry, instead of sharing our personal stories to convince a legislator to vote on our behalf, Lifton turned the table and shared some of her personal reasons for backing LGBT rights.

Fighting back tears, she spoke movingly of her brother, who passed away from AIDS, and of his partner, who she called "My brother in law". She also said that she had initially supported civil marriage rights for same-sex couples but had ultimately come around to support full marriage equality. Ultimately, she said, words do matter and 'marriage' is a word that conveys not only the rights and responsibilities granted by the state to a couple who loves each other, but also the recognition and celebration of a couple's commitment before the law, society and family. She said that she wished her brother could be alive when marriage equality eventually reaches New York State because he and his partner should not have deserved anything less but equal rights.

In other words, she was great.

MY favorite encounter of the whole day was an unscheduled run-in with Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr.

I was in the State Senate wing waiting for an elevator to take me back down when the doors opened and - lo-and-behold - there he was. Actually, it took me by surprise, since I assumed he might stay away from his office on E&J Day.

He stared at me intently, with the same mistrustful stare he gave me at an anti-gay rally that took place last September (right), and I just looked back at him and smiled sweetly.

No words were exchanged and we each went our separate ways, but I was just greatly enjoying the thought of thousands of us in the building and the Senator having to just grin and bear it.

At noon, it was rally time. Here is the great Alan Van Capelle, ED of the Pride Agenda, being interviewed with ralliers in the back-ground on what turned to be a scorcher of an April day (I believe temperatures reached the 90's). At one point the crowd spontaneously burst into a Spanish-language chant of Si se puede! Si se puede! Si se puede! Echoes, probably, of the sounds of the Obama presidential campaign rather than those of Latino farmworker rights and immigration rights rallies.

A number of religious leaders from different denominations spoke in support of equal rights. I saw only two anti-gay protesters (click here and here) who were soundly booed and, in one case, driven out of the park by a group of young gay people of color queer folk (there was an amazing number of queer youth of color at Equality and Justice this year).

There were also a couple of personal encounters that I truly appreciated: At the rally, I was approached by a young Latino guy who pointed at me and asked "Hey, aren't you a blogger?" I was totally surprised and embarrassed! He was, I believe, from Rochester, and said he was a frequent reader and loved the blog. I felt honored.

And, after an early afternoon People of Color caucus, a young woman of Colombian descent approached me and asked for advice on how to handle the coming out process with her parents. I was so touched and I hope the advice I gave her truly helps her deal with what she described as a difficult situation. From what she shared, despite the difficult situation, I have a feeling that things will turn out OK. I wish her the best.

After another set of legislative visits in the afternoon, everyone made their way back to the buses, trains and automobiles. I had been on the early morning bus from Queens but, during the day, had ran into my friend Pauline Park, and she later told me that one of her friends had offered both of us a ride home.

It turned out that Pauline's friend was a man who identifies himself as a cross-dresser. I have a few transgender friends, including Pauline, but I can't say that I am too familiar with cross-dressing men who might identify as straight. One of the first things he told me was that I was glad I was coming along because if the conversation got boring we could certainly talk football with no small attempt at macho bluster. He was great, actually, and a hoot and a half. He also had distinctive male facial characteristics which made 'passing' as a woman almost impossible. Which explained the surprised looks and outright derisive laughter I saw and heard when we made a couple of rest stops. It was all very Transamerican-ish, if I may say.

The funny thing was that, as we were driving, Pauline noticed a truck next to us with a certain word written on its side. Lucky for us, we actually caught up to the truck at a truck stop / rest area spot. And, well, how could we not take this picture? That's Pauline next to the truck. A perfect end to this years LGBT Equality and Justice Day.

One final word: I just love the Pride Agenda and thank them for inviting me to cover the event. Most importantly I was in awe of the way they pulled this year's event off considering the huge number of participants and making sure that things ran well. Just an amazing bunch of folks.

More photos of LGBT E&J Day here.



Anna said...

Some of my former students were there representing the young queers of Bushwick. Thanks for your great update.

libhom said...

I really hope SONDA passes soon. It is long overdue, and it is embarrassing that gender identity was left out of our state's lgb civil rights bill.

Ron Buckmire said...

Isn't "The Egg" in Albany trippy? I still remember my 8 years in the
Capital District area reasonably fondly.

You shoulda said something to Diaz in the elevator.

Maybe "Why do you hate us so much?" (en espanol)

Great reporting!

miss wild thing said...

I LOVE that pic of Pauline!!!