Paterson Talks N.Y. Marriage Fight

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com May 24 2011 8:40 AM ET

Former New York governor David Paterson was honored Monday by the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund in Manhattan, where he discussed his experience with transgender rights and the marriage equality bill, which could face another vote in the senate soon.

TLDEF recognized Paterson for contributions including the signing of an executive order in 2009 to ban discrimination against transgender public employees in New York State. The governor signed the order when the senate failed to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which still awaits action in the chamber.

“The legislature would not pass a GENDA, so I signed it for them,” he told the crowd of more than 100 at the Chelsea Art Museum in his customarily wry fashion.

Organizers said the sixth anniversary benefit for TLDEF raised $100,000, making it the “largest fund-raiser ever anywhere for transgender rights,” according to executive director Michael Silverman. Hosted by actress Laverne Cox, the event also honored film director Kimberly Reed, Dr. Christine McGinn of the Papillon Gender Wellness Center, and NCAA Division I basketball player Kye Allums. Special guests included New York City council speaker Christine Quinn, who joined TLDEF in celebrating this year’s victory of a new city policy to ensure that transgender applicants have equal access to marriage licenses.

Prior to the evening awards program, the former governor spoke with The Advocate about his effort to pass the marriage equality bill two years ago, which ended with defeat in the state senate, then controlled by Democrats. This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Yorkers United for Marriage, a coalition of five LGBT advocacy groups, are working to pass the bill in the Republican-controlled senate before the legislative session ends on June 20 using a more coordinated strategy that Paterson praised.

“One of the problems two years ago is too many cooks spoil the broth,” he said. “I thought the biggest problem with the advocates two years ago was they really thought it was going to pass, until they started fighting over who was getting the credit before it passed and then they got themselves mixed up with other issues, like when the senate had a coup, and they wanted a bill put on the floor. Why would you put such a sensitive bill on the floor in the middle of a senate coup? That made no sense, and I think that spelled the beginning of the end, because in the spring of 2009, I thought it was going to pass.”

Paterson referred to the leadership crisis that paralyzed senate business for a month that summer, prompted by Democratic defections. When the senate finally voted on the bill in a special session in December, it failed 38 to 24, with not a single Republican voting in favor.

Currently, 26 senators, all Democrats, publicly support the marriage equality bill, which needs 32 votes to pass the senate. Three Democrats remain undecided, but insiders acknowledge that winning their support is crucial to convincing a handful of undecided Republicans.

“I think they would be likely to come up with about 27, and then it depends on whether or not the Republican conference wants to help marriage equality,” said Paterson of the Democratic votes. “Now, do I think they are five Republicans who want to vote for marriage equality? Yeah, I think there are.”

Paterson, who has been teaching at New York University since leaving office last year, said he has not initiated any marriage advocacy, but he has shared his perspective with the governor and advocates when asked. He expressed admiration for the “very engaged” leadership of Governor Cuomo, who has made marriage equality one of his three legislative priorities this year.

“I think what he’s done, which is extraordinary, is he’s controlling the whole process, which is what I did when I was the minority leader and we passed SONDA, and in retrospect, probably what I should have done two years ago,” said the former state senator from Harlem.

The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act passed the New York state senate in 2002 and was signed into law by Gov. George Pataki. Advocates have cited the example to demonstrate that statewide progress can be achieved under Republican leadership.

While he said he has not personally lobbied lawmakers, last week Paterson joined more than 50 leaders of color who sent an open letter to the state legislature that placed marriage equality within the context of the civil rights struggle. He emphasized the connections between the LGBT and civil rights movements on Monday with an anecdote about Martin Luther King Jr., who stood up for Bayard Rustin when some people objected to the gay organizer’s involvement in the 1963 March on Washington.

“What Martin Luther King did that made him so special is that he could see the civil and human rights issues beyond his neighborhood,” said Paterson, the state’s first African-American governor. He added, “When people are being denied opportunities that other people have, that is by definition a civil rights issue.”

Paterson also counts being the first governor to have a drink at the historic Stonewall Inn on his trailblazing résumé, but he said he does not miss the governor’s office for the most part. His tenure, a continuation of the term won by Eliot Spitzer, who resigned following a prostitution scandal, was widely viewed as tumultuous.

“I miss the issues. I miss the opportunity to make change. I don’t miss the game-playing and the corruption, which spreads beyond the government,” said Paterson, who recently learned that he would not face perjury charges stemming from an investigation into his acceptance of World Series tickets in 2009.

In addition to his signing of the executive order to prevent discrimination against transgender state workers, Paterson also signed an executive order in 2008 to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. Last week, Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican who had challenged the order in court, introduced a bill to void that recognition, but the measure is not expected to advance.

“The full faith and credit clause of the constitution will stop Martin Golden and his bill and anybody who supports it,” said Paterson. “It was entirely appropriate and constitutional for the governor to do that.”