On Dec. 12, the Empire State Pride Agenda abruptly announced it would shut down along with its foundation (though not its political action committee), something of a George W. Bush ‘mission accomplished’ moment because New York’s only statewide LGBT advocacy organization is closing its doors claiming having fulfilled its mission but without having secured enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act as it had promised the transgender community. At its Oct. 22 fall dinner, ESPA touted regulations announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression, but they do not have the force of statute law and could be rescinded by his successor and will undermine efforts to push GENDA through the Senate. Many New York activists have disputed the notion that the state’s LGBT community has achieved full equality, which still faces myriad issues such as homelessness, health care access and police brutality.
It is obvious that the ESPA and Foundation boards voted to shut down for the simple reason that the organizations were no longer financially viable. The campaign for the marriage equality bill enabled ESPA to solicit unprecedented donations, but donations predictably dried up when the bill passed the Senate in 2011 and ESPA found itself in dire straits, borrowing heavily from its Foundation just to make payroll and putting itself deep into debt.
The Foundation itself was relying primarily on a big grant from the state Department of Health to run the New York State LGBT Health & Human Services Network of over 60 LGBT social service providers. Rather than carefully plan for the predictable fall-off in donations after enactment of the marriage law, the ESPA board compounded the error by making an even bigger mistake: Co-chair Louis Bradbury and his cronies abruptly fired Ross Levi, using the fall-off in donations as a pretext to get rid of an executive director with sufficient standing in the community to give him a degree of independence from a board that wanted to micro-manage the staff and replace him with someone with little relevant experience who could be easily controlled.
The increasingly precarious fiscal situation pushed the board to cut a backroom deal with a governor who had not shown the slightest interest in using his influence with the Senate to push GENDA through so that ESPA could declare victory and go home; hence the need to avoid consultation even with the GENDA Coalition, because ESPA could not risk a negative response to the shoddy deal cut with Cuomo to secure the executive order. The deal represents a betrayal of the transgender community and the process through which the GENDA coalition was working to enact legislation to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression in state law.
ESPA could have taken a different path and expanded its work to move beyond its relatively narrow policy agenda, which was in fact the direction the GENDA Coalition was moving in, having decided by consensus in 2014 that it would expand beyond GENDA to a broader agenda of social justice.
But the truth is that neither the boards nor the staffs of the Pride Agenda and its Foundation had any real interest in moving in that direction; the leadership was content to declare victory and go home after having helped secure enactment of the state hate crimes law (2000), the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (2002), the Dignity for All Students Act prohibiting bullying (2010) and the marriage equality law (2011).
No one could deny that the enactment of such legislation was not a significant achievement; but the shoddy deal that ESPA cut with Cuomo that effectively undercut the work of those attempting to advance GENDA cannot be forgotten and will not be forgiven by many; it was the final betrayal of the transgender community after the solemn vow in the wake of the SONDA debacle in 2002 to secure enactment of transgender non-discrimination legislation.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy and led the campaign for the trans rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. She served on the steering committee of the coalition seeking to advance GENDA, still pending in the New York State Senate.