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To discriminate or not to discriminate 

On December 17, the New York State Senate will reconvene and vote on the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA). If the act passes --- which is still far from certain --- it will cap a legislative effort to protect gay rights that's been three-decades in the making.

            Under the state's Human Rights Law, it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on their race, sex, creed, national origin, disability, age, or marital status. SONDA would simply add "sexual orientation" to that list. The law covers matters involving employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit.

            Similar gay-rights legislation has been before the Legislature for 31 years. The Democratically controlled Assembly has passed SONDA for the last 10 years in a row, but the bill has languished in the Senate, where Republican Majority Leader Joe Bruno has blocked it from coming to the floor for a vote.

            Bruno has since relented, but it's unclear why. His spokesman, Mark Hansen, would only reiterate that the majority leader intends to allow the Senate to vote on SONDA. Hansen would not say whether or not Bruno personally supports the act.

            "Senator Bruno has not made a public statement on how he plans to vote on SONDA," says Joe Tarver, communications director for The Pride Agenda, a gay-rights organization on the forefront of the effort to pass SONDA. "We believe that [Bruno] probably will [vote for SONDA], but we're certainly not presuming."

            The Pride Agenda has identified 20 to 22 Democratic senators and 10 to 11 Republican senators likely to support the bill. The measure will need 32 votes to pass the Senate (where Republicans hold a 38-24 majority) and be sent to Governor Pataki, who has pledged to sign it.

Locally, Democratic State Senator Rick Dollinger supports SONDA. (Dollinger will not be joining his colleagues when the 2003 Senate convenes next year. He gave up his seat to run, ultimately unsuccessfully, for County Court Judge this year.) Republican Senator Jim Alesi could not be reached for comment, and a spokeswoman for Republican Senator Michael Nozzolio did not return calls seeking comment, but Tarver says it's The Pride Agenda's understanding that both are undecided.

            Our region's other representative in the Senate, Republican George Maziarz, says "I'm really sort of torn by it, to be honest with you... I'd hate to do a bill that's going to lead to more lawsuits." In other words, Maziarz is also undecided.

            Asked about SONDA's prospects in the Senate, Dollinger said, "My guess is it passes."

            "I've always said that as soon as Joe Bruno releases it to come to the floor, the bill has more than enough votes to pass," Dollinger says. "This is [a bill] that's been bottled up because of the leadership-driven system in Albany. My sense has always been that there's a clear majority, a decisive majority, in favor of this bill. It should get 40 votes."

            Tarver also believes SONDA will be supported by a clear majority once it comes before the Senate. "Given that this is straight up-and-down vote --- do you believe in discrimination or do you not believe in discrimination --- at the end of the day, many more people will vote for it than have indicated to us they will do so."

Some opponents of SONDA claim the act gives gays and lesbians special rights --- a claim Dollinger dismisses. "I'd like to know what special right people have because of their religion," he says. "What special right do people have because of their race, creed, or color? There are no special rights in here. This simply says that you cannot be judged purely on the basis of a factor that has nothing to do with your fitness as an employee, or a person who rents housing."

            Dollinger also says some legislators are wary that SONDA's passage somehow condones gay lifestyles --- a concern he also dismisses. "No one says that about condoning African Americans because they're protected on the basis of their race," he says.

            "A number of individuals will say, 'I'm not for discrimination, but I don't think we should be adding any additional categories,'" says Tarver. "It's kind of an interesting argument, because when it gets to the point of talking about discrimination based on sexual orientation, it's time to stop adding categories. That argument doesn't sound particularly sellable in our minds."

            Others have objected to SONDA because they say it covers a characteristic people can change about themselves, unlike ethnicity or age. "That's not true," Tarver says. "We argue that sexual orientation is not a choice, it's who you are. But even if you want to say it's a choice, well, the category creed or religion is a choice."

            "You also hear all types of things, like, 'You won't be able to fire someone who doesn't do a day's work, because they're gay;' or 'You won't be able to deny someone to rent a room out of your home, because they're gay,'" says Tarver. "These are all totally false."

            "When they make that argument that if you don't do a day's work, you can't be fired because you're gay, well, then they would have to say right now, under current law, if you don't do a day's work, because you're Jewish or Catholic or black you can't be fired," Tarver adds.

            Tarver also notes that New York's Human Rights Law provides exemptions for small companies and small-scale landlords. For example, someone renting a single-occupancy apartment above their garage would not need to comply with the law.

"It is a myth that discrimination is not a problem in New York State," Tarver says. Besides the most obvious examples of discrimination, he says anti-gay prejudice poisons "the day-to-day aspects of living life," for gays and lesbians in the state.

            Among the more routine examples: gay couples being denied service or kicked out of furniture stores when it becomes obvious they live together; "people being denied service in diners; people trying to get the names of themselves and their lover engraved on a piece of jewelry, and being told by the owners of the jewelry store, 'We don't do that here,'" Tarver says. "It's the simple things that many people don't stop and think about."

            Pam Barres, interim executive director of The Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, hopes SONDA passes, but is disappointed that it will not explicitly cover transgendered people. "That is a huge gap," Barres says. "So we still have a vast number of people without full human rights, or equal rights, in this state."

            "This organization certainly supports transgendered rights," Tarver says, but "it's been our opinion that the votes aren't there for a trans-inclusive bill."

            The City of Rochester is one of a few dozen municipalities in New York with its own ordinance against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Rochester's ordinance, which went into effect in 2001, also covers gender identity. If SONDA passes, it will have no effect on the city's law.

            Altering SONDA to protect gender expression would require a new vote in the Assembly and Senate, and after a decade advocating for SONDA as it now reads, that's a step the act's proponents are loath to take.

            "This is a bill whose time is now," Tarver says.

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