Albany, N.Y, December 17, 2002 -In a rare and historic moment, a majority of Democratic members today led a bipartisan coalition of their colleagues in the State Senate on a 34 to 26 vote to pass a bill outlawing anti-gay discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodation, education and credit throughout New York State. The vote on the measure - commonly known as SONDA (the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act) (A.1971/S.720) - overwhelmingly passed the State Assembly in January. Governor George Pataki, a strong supporter of the legislation, signed it into law three hours later. SONDA takes effect in 30 days.
New York will be the 13th state - the second largest after California - to enact anti-discrimination protections for gay men and lesbians. (New York City passed a similar measure in 1986 and, earlier this year, also enacted a separate law extending discrimination protection to transgender persons.) SONDA adds the words "sexual orientation" to the state's existing human rights and education laws. Those laws prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, creed, color, national origin, disability, age and marital status. To celebrate the victory, rainbow flags will fly tomorrow from city halls across the state, including those of Albany, Brighton, Brooklyn, Buffalo, and Rochester.
"We are overjoyed that the 31-year-long struggle for a statewide law has finally won gay and lesbian people the same rights as all other New Yorkers," said Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. "The New York law will be one of the broadest anti-gay discrimination laws in the nation. This lays the foundation for winning full equality under the law in areas such as taxation, protections for gay youth and transgender people, and recognition of our families."
"Thirty-one years was far too long to wait for a very basic civil rights measure to pass," continued Foreman. "However, today is about looking forward not back. The passage of SONDA heralds a new day in New York State for our community."
Foreman said the main impact of the new law would be felt in places like Rockland, Broome, Erie and more than 30 other counties, where no local antidiscrimination laws covering gay men and lesbians currently exist.
Of the Senate's 24 Democratic members, 21 voted in favor of passage, while 13 of the chamber's 36 Republicans voted affirmatively. Both Senate Democratic Leader David Paterson and Majority Leader Joseph Bruno voted in favor. For Paterson, it was a significant victory just weeks after his election to lead Senate Democrats as head of their conference.
"I am proud to have led the State Senate in providing the great majority of votes to pass SONDA, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in our state's history, and one that was long overdue," said Senator Paterson. "Hundreds of thousands of people beyond New York City who today are vulnerable to the most abject discrimination will now enjoy critical legal protections in employment, housing, education and credit. We worked long and hard to overcome the opposition of entrenched conservative forces, and we will build on this great victory to achieve full equality for the LGBT community in the months and years ahead."
Today's vote was the third major statewide legislative victory for the gay community in New York in three years. In 2000, the state adopted a hate crimes law that included crimes motivated by anti-gay hate and also repealed its 150-year old consensual sodomy statute.
Duffy Palmer, Upstate Board Co-Chair, Thanks Elected Leaders
"We are grateful to Senate Democratic Leader David Paterson (D-L-Manhattan) and Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-C-Rensselaer) for their efforts to pass SONDA," said Duffy Palmer, Upstate Board Co-Chair of the Pride Agenda. "Their leadership and cooperation were critical. We are grateful to both of them and to the supportive members of their conferences for putting politics aside to secure equal rights for gay and lesbian people in places that would have never had them without today's vote. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) kept hope alive these past 10 years by repeatedly passing SONDA in the Assembly and sending it to the Senate for action. We also are indebted to other legislators who have worked so hard over the years to pass SONDA: Assemblymember Steven Sanders (D-L-IND-Manhattan) - the bill's sponsor in the Assembly - former Senator Roy Goodman (R-L-Manhattan, the bill's longtime sponsor in the Senate - and Senator Nancy Larraine Hoffmann (R-I-Syracuse), the bill's cosponsor who led the debate on the floor."
"We also want to thank Assemblymember Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), whose election in 1990 was a catalyst for the Assembly passing SONDA for the first time in 1993. State Senator Tom Duane (D-Manhattan) has brought true passion to this issue in the Senate and has helped to educate his colleagues on what it means to be a gay, lesbian bisexual or transgender person in New York State. We thank him for his efforts and his support today. In addition, State Senator Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan) provided invaluable assistance, for which we are most grateful."
"Finally, we want to thank Governor George Pataki for his leadership in helping to assemble support in the Senate for this bill," continued Palmer. We appreciate all his efforts to pass SONDA and are elated that he signed the legislation this evening."
"We are also grateful to the thousands of people who have pushed for SONDA for the past three decades," said Foreman. Special recognition goes to the Anti-Defamation League, Log Cabin Republicans, NY State United Teachers, Interfaith Impact of NYS, National Association of Social Workers (NYS), and our predecessor organization, the NYS Lesbian & Gay Lobby.
Thirty-One Year Effort
Detailed Chronology on SONDA
Answers to Commonly Asked Questions about SONDA
New York's lesbian and gay community has been pushing for a statewide non-discrimination bill since 1971, when the first gay march on Albany (attracting nearly 3,000 people) was organized and a non-discrimination bill was first introduced by in the state Assembly and Senate. (To highlight this fact, in 2002 SONDA was designated bill number A.1971 in the Assembly.) The 1971 bill was the first "gay rights" legislation to be introduced in any state legislature in the country.
SONDA did not reach the Assembly floor until 1993, when it passed by a vote of 90 to 50 (with only nine Republicans voting in support). The election of Assemblymember Deborah Glick in 1990 as the Legislature's first openly lesbian or gay member was seen as a catalyst for reviving SONDA. Since the vote in 1993, the Assembly has passed SONDA every year for ten years, with increasing bi-partisan support. This year, the bill passed the Assembly by a vote of 113 to 27, and for the first time ever had a majority of GOP members supporting it.
Until today, SONDA had never been allowed to the Senate floor for a vote. The bill was discussed within the Senate Republican Conference in 2001 and during the 2002 session, the first serious discussions since 1994. The state's Conservative Party (on whose ballot line most Republican Senators also run) and the Catholic Conference were major opponents to allowing a floor vote.
Pride Agenda Focuses on Hate Crimes Bill and Passing Local Non-Discrimination Laws
To break the Senate deadlock on SONDA, the Pride Agenda followed a two-pronged strategy.
First, in 1998, the organization made passing a gay-inclusive hate crimes law - not SONDA - its first legislative priority. That effort paid off at the end of the 2000 legislative session, when the state legislature adopted a tough law enhancing penalties for hate-motivated crimes, including crimes motivated by anti-gay hate. It was the first statewide law to specifically include protections for lesbians and gay men.
"We knew that we had to get the senate over the psychological barrier of including the words 'sexual orientation' in state law," Foreman said. "We also had to demonstrate that there would be no negative fallout in the polls for voting for a gay-inclusive bill, and the 2000 election results proved that conclusively."
As predicted, in the 2000 elections, no GOP senator who voted for the hate crimes bill suffered any negative repercussions at the polls. Rather, the response appeared to be uniformly positive.
Second, the organization focused resources on passing local non-discrimination laws that included protections for gay men and lesbians. In just over three years, that effort yielded remarkable results: Nassau County (2000), Suffolk County (2001), Westchester County (1999) and the City of Rochester (2001) each enacted gay-inclusive non-discrimination laws. Because of these new laws, the proportion of New Yorkers living in jurisdictions with some protections against anti-gay discrimination increased from 51% in 1998 to 67% by June 2001.
"We demonstrated that we could win these fights at the local level, with bi-partisan support, even in areas where the Conservative Party is particularly strong," Foreman said. "We believe these local actions helped bring about a change in the way gay issues are viewed in Albany."
Vote Caps a Statewide Campaign
Over the past 24 months, the Pride Agenda mounted a statewide campaign to bring SONDA to a vote in the Senate. The effort included:
Meeting with Senator Bruno, Governor Pataki and Republican State Party Chair Sandy Treadwell to expand support beyond the Assembly and ensure a truly bi-partisan effort to support the bill
Releasing a report (in May 2001) documenting that over half of gay men and lesbians in the state have experienced anti-gay discrimination within the last five years
Producing a report (in June 2001), through the prestigious law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, detailing the wide disparity of non-discrimination protections available to gay men and lesbians depending on where they live in state
Arranging an unprecedented number of meetings between constituents and senators in their district offices.
Erecting a billboard in support of SONDA in Albany (June 2001), along a busy road traveled by legislators, dramatically highlighting the fact that it was legal in New York to fire someone simply because they're gay
Mobilizing its 25,000 members to press their senators and the governor for action on SONDA
Making SONDA an issue in the 2002 governor's race after the bill failed once again to become law by the end of the regular legislative session.
"We wanted lawmakers to understand that this issue was not going to go away, until it was passed once and for all," said Foreman.
Power of the Gay Vote Clearly an Issue
One important factor in SONDA finally moving is the growing recognition of the power of the lesbian and gay vote in New York State. According to recent polls, gay men and lesbians are at least 6% of the statewide vote (or roughly 418,000 votes based upon the total number of New Yorkers that voted in the 2000 general election). While Democratic candidates typically win the majority of gay votes, Republican moderates on gay issues - such as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani - have garnered up to 40% of the community's vote.
In the 2002 governor's race, both major party candidates talked about gay issues and courted the gay vote as never before. Governor Pataki's unfulfilled pledge to get the Senate to pass SONDA, made at the Pride Agenda's 2001 annual Fall Dinner in New York City, quickly became the issue that defined the race for many in the gay community. When Governor Pataki had Mayor Bloomberg deliver a message at this year's Pride Agenda annual dinner about a near-term vote on SONDA and Carl McCall countered that the Governor had broken his commitment to passing SONDA, the exchange was reported widely in the press and from that point forward became a major issue in the campaign for governor. Nineteen days later, on October 22, after continual press focus on SONDA as a factor in the governor's race, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno announced that he would put SONDA to a vote in the State Senate in December, thereby breaking the 31-year impasse on the bill.
"The leadership of the Democratic party and now the Republican party recognizes that the gay community is a large and powerful voting block," said Foreman. "Passing SONDA today was an absolute 'must' for both political parties if either hopes to seriously represent themselves as being concerned about the interests of the hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men that call New York State home."
Broad Public Support for SONDA
Mr. Foreman also said the Senate's action was bolstered by polls showing widespread support for SONDA cutting across party lines.
"Poll after poll has shown widespread public support for SONDA and other non-discrimination measures protecting gay people. As far back as 1993, a state Republican party poll that found 65% of Republicans agreed that New York should 'pass laws to protect homosexuals like it protects other groups.'" A 1995 statewide poll commissioned by the Albany Times Union and the Syracuse Herald American found that 70.3% favored lesbians and gay men having the same rights as others in terms of job opportunities and access to housing. In February 1998 statewide Mason-Dixon poll, 64% said their legislators should vote for SONDA. A countywide poll commissioned by the Pride Agenda in October 2000 found that 80% of the people of Nassau County support non-discrimination protections for lesbians and gay men.
Twelve states, including New Jersey and all the northeastern states (except Maine), and the District of Columbia already have gay-inclusive non-discrimination laws. Maryland outlawed sexual orientation discrimination last year.