Pauline Park: "Campaign," part 2
The Power of Context
NYAGRA, working in partnership with the Pride Agenda, launched the public phase of the campaign for Intro 754 (as it was first introduced) with a press conference on the steps of City Hall on February 29, 2000. This was the first public event at City Hall ever specifically focused on the passage of transgender rights legislation in New York, and it was a daunting and an exhilarating moment for those who participated in it. The political context in which we were operating, after all, was one in which the word transgender had never been spoken in connection with pending legislation.
On that day, a host of Councilmembers stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of transgendered people, and joining us were representatives from leading civil rights organizations, such as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund and the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). The picture communicated solidarity and harkened back to the civil rights struggles of the past.
Most politicians in New York, if they thought about transgender at all, probably had stereotyped images of flamboyant drag queens in pride parades and transsexuals talking about their sex change operations on the Jerry Springer Show. Reframing ‘transgender’ as a civil rights struggle enabled them to re-envision it as something worthy of their attention. Far from an embarrassment or an afterthought, transgender became not only respectable but even de rigueur for progressive political figures.
In Gladwellian, terms, what the campaign did was to create a positive ‘epidemic’ of transgender rights fever throughout the political culture of New York City politics. The key ingredients in the epidemic, as noted above, included a small but cohesive core group of political epidemiologists – focused on the NYAGRA-led legislative work group – along with a succinct and coherent message about basic human rights for a marginalized population. By the time the bill was actually introduced in the City Council at a stated Council meeting on June 5, 2000, the groundwork had been laid for its passage. At the time of the bill introduction, which took place immediately after our second press conference at City Hall, 25 Councilmembers had signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, only one short of a majority. But it would take nearly two more years to get the bill through the Council and signed into law. The explanation, once again, is the power of context. In this case, it is the institutional context that determined the ultimate outcome, but that institutional context was in turn powerfully influenced by the larger political context of a mayoral campaign and legislative elections as well as the context of media coverage and of LGBT community mobilization.
The institutional context, in one respect, was quite simple: the Speaker of the City Council held near-absolute power and could block any bill he opposed from even coming up for a vote in committee, let alone moving to the floor of the Council for a final vote by the full Council, and the mayor held the veto power that would require a two-thirds majority to override any mayoral veto even if a bill passed the Council. In his 16 years as Speaker, Peter F. Vallone ruled the Council with the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove. While ostensibly free agents elected by their own constituents, Councilmembers often resembled vassals in a feudal barony, and few had the courage or the power to challenge their liege lord. Whether from political calculation or personal prejudice, Vallone blocked the bill through the end of his Speakership in December 2001, though he never publicly stated his opposition to it. The larger political context was that of a fierce campaign for the Democratic mayoral nomination that pitted Vallone against three candidates with superb credentials on LGBT issues: Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. All three had signed onto support the bill, and Vallone undoubtedly realized that open opposition to Intro 754 would remind LGBT voters of his opposition to the gay rights bill many years before. In 1986, as newly elected Speaker, Vallone had allowed that bill to come to the floor for a final vote, passing in the full Council after years of struggle, but only after he spoke vehemently against it.
At the same time, Vallone’s larger political strategy in the race was to go for more conservative white ethnic Democrats in the outer boroughs, and open support for a transgender rights bill would not play well in Borough Park, Brooklyn,or Bayside, Queens. So Vallone’s strategy with regard to Intro 754 was to pay lip service to the need to protect everyone against discrimination while insisting that this bill was unnecessary because transgendered people were already included in current law; and in this, he had secured the support of the mayor. Vallone had Giuliani’s tacit support in the Democratic primary race. In order to help his old friend, the mayor apparently ordered corporation counsel to draft a memorandum ‘proving’ that transgendered people were already covered under the rubrics of gender and disability, and this memo – which became public in March 2001 – would provide Vallone with the fig leaf he needed to justify his refusal to allow Intro 754 to move forward.
Vallone eventually allowed a public hearing on the bill on May 4 of that year, but it was not to advance the bill but rather to provide the Commissioner for Human Rights, Marta B. Varela, the opportunity to testify before the Council that it was her considered opinion – supported by the memo written by corporation counsel staff attorney Martha Mann Alfaro – that the legislation was unnecessary.
But the Speaker’s decision to allow the public hearing was itself a significant concession to public opinion, especially LGBT community sentiment, and it must be explained with reference to the changing context of public opinion. The significant media attention that we were able to bring to bear on the issue of transgender discrimination throughout the more than two years from February 2000 – when we launched the public phase of the campaign for the bill – to April 2002, when the bill finally passed the Council and was signed into law by the mayor, had shifted consciousness in a way that was nothing less than astonishing.
Over the course of this two-year period, scores of articles appeared in the gay press. Regular coverage in LGNY and the New York Blade turned transgender rights into a central item on the agenda of the LGBT community in New York City. But from our first press conference in February 2000 through the bill signing ceremony in April 2002, we were able to break through into the mainstream media, with news stories in the daily newspapers, local TV broadcasts, and through the wire services. And news stories helped prompt editorials in favor of the bill. One of the most important turning points came in the summer of 2000, when a news article in the New York Times in June was followed by an editorial in August. The August 29 Times editorial was not only the first editorial on a transgender-related topic, it was the first supporting transgender rights legislation, and it made the Speaker sit up and take notice of the campaign. If the Times was editorializing in favor of our bill, that meant that the powers that be – in this case, the Speaker and the mayor – had to take it seriously; Intro 754 had become real for them.
The Times editorial was followed by an op-ed piece in Newsday by former mayor Ed Koch, who asked of transgendered people, "Why should they be subject to discrimination in New York City when Iowa City is able to accept them without discrimination?" The Times editorial and the Newsday op-ed from Koch signaled that the political establishment was getting behind this bill. Transgender rights – an issue that most mainstream politicians would not have thought worthy of consideration before February 2000 – had become embraced by the city’s political elite as one of its own.
But this shift in consciousness was not in itself enough to overcome the entrenched institutional opposition of the Speaker, supported by the mayor. It was rather an institutional change that had nothing whatsoever to do with the bill itself that altered the institutional context in which the bill was being considered. With Vallone’s defeat in the Democratic mayoral primary in September 2001, his departure from the Council in December led to a change in leadership, and Councilmember Gifford Miller’s election as Speaker meant that one of the bill’s co-sponsors would be in charge. Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s refusal to consider legislation that would extend Mayor Giuliani’s term or repeal term limits for the mayor, now wildly popular in the wake of 9/11, meant that the mayor who had conspired with the Speaker to block the bill would be leaving office in December as well. Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican who had made a public commitment to the bill, was elected mayor in November and came into office in January 2002.
ESPA had insisted that any candidate for City Council running in the September primary and the November election commit to supporting the bill, and so a majority of new Councilmembers coming into office in January were already on record committed to it. Significantly, not a single Council candidate who committed to the bill was defeated because of it; in fact, to my knowledge, none of their opponents raised the issue or attempted to use it against them. Hence the candidates newly elected to the Council had had the experience of running on a platform including support for a transgender rights bill, and far from being a liability, if anything, it seemed to have been an asset to them, at least in the more liberal districts in the city. Council candidates who endorsed the bill mentioned that in their campaign literature targeted towards the LGBT community, and some (such as Gale Brewer in the 6th district, on the liberal Upper West Side) used it in their general campaign literature. Even candidates for citywide office, such as mayor, public advocate, and comptroller, embraced the bill. Every Democratic LGBT political club in the city regarded support for the bill as a sine qua non, with the Gay & Lesbian Independent Democrats (GLID), the Stonewall Democratic Club, and Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, as well as the non-partisan Out People of Color Political Action Club (OutPOCPAC) insisting that they would not endorse a candidate who did not make a public commitment to the legislation. In the 1997 elections for Council and citywide offices, transgender rights had not even been raised as an issue; in the 2001 elections, support for the transgender rights bill had become a litmus test of support for the LGBT community as a whole.
Hence, when Bill Perkins reintroduced the legislation as Int. No. 24 in January, it was easy to get a majority of Councilmembers to sign on as co-sponsors, since a majority had already publicly committed to supporting it. The power of the Speaker’s office, once the primary impediment to the bill’s progress, was now put fully behind it, and Speaker Miller used the full weight of his office to move it expeditiously through the Council. The April 23 hearing in the General Welfare Committee, chaired by newly-elected Councilmember Bill DeBlasio from Park Slope, Brooklyn, could not have been less contentious. The only inharmonious moment was when Dennis Gallagher, a newly-elected conservative Republican Councilmember from Middle Village, Queens (who had been chief of staff to former Councilmember and minority leader Tom Ognibene) voted against the bill and explained his vote to loud boos. No one in the legislative work group had expected the Republicans to support the bill, and so Gallagher’s vote in commit was no surprise. What was a surprise was DeBlasio’s decision to hold a vote on the bill then and there and his announcement that it could come up for a vote in the full Council at the stated Council meeting the very next day. Transgender activists excitedly packed the gallery on Wednesday, April 24 for the historic vote, which exceeded all expectations. Every Democrat voted in favor, except Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr., from the Bronx, who abstained, in keeping with a promise he had made to Margarita Lopez not to vote against the bill – in itself a significant victory. All four Republicans voted against, and the final vote of 45-5 so greatly exceeded the two-thirds majority necessary to override any veto that it made moot the question as to whether the new mayor would veto the bill. In the end, despite some equivocal statements, Mayor Bloomberg kept his commitment to sign the bill into law and did so at a ceremony on April 30, surrounded by co-sponsors and transgender activists.
A transgender rights law, which was little more than a dream four years before and a hope two years before, had become reality. When the bill was signed into law, it made New York City the largest jurisdiction in the country by population to enact a transgender anti-discrimination law through legislation and it doubled the population of Americans protected from discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
It is through a close study of this campaign, using Gladwell’s principles, that we can draw lessons about transgender community organizing and social transformation. First, as Gladwell suggests, consistent with the Law of the Few, a small number of people can engage real and meaningful social change. While organizations representing thousands of people supported the transgender rights bill, the day-to-day work of the campaign was carried on by only a handful of people. Second, per the Stickiness Factor, the way in which a message is communicated can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. The campaign’s ability to craft a simple message of basic human rights to remedy pervasive discrimination proved critical in successfully communicating with key audiences. And third, the Power of Context, as Gladwell argues, is indeed crucial. The campaign was able to make transgender inclusion part of the dominant discourse in the LGBT community and was successful in persuading the city’s political elite to make transgender discrimination its own issue. But it was ultimately an entirely unrelated issue – namely, term limits – that helped reshape the political context in which the transgender rights bill was being considered, and when term limits forced out the incumbent mayor and Council Speaker, that gave the new Council leadership the opportunity to move the bill to passage.
I would like to conclude by quoting from a historic speech given in 1994. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?" This is a quote from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech as he took the oath of office as president of the Republic of South Africa. As Mandela said at his inaugural, "As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
In an era overtaken by cheap and easy cynicism, it is too easy to give into the temptation to throw up our hands and say that we can’t do anything about it, whatever ‘it’ is. But the truth is that each of us has it in our power to make social change. We simply have to believe that we can and then find the best way to do it. I invite you tonight to join me in the gender revolution. We all have a stake in it – men and women, conventionally gendered and gender-variant, transgendered and non-transgendered. As I see it, the goal of this movement is not simply to help a few people fit more comfortably into pre-existing boxes, but to break out of the boxes all together. The objective must be nothing less than to transform society’s understanding of gender in order to gain freedom of gender identity and expression for all.
The ultimate lesson from the campaign for Intro 24 is that a small but dedicated group of individuals can make real social change. Together, we can change the world; we must simply have the imagination to envision it and the courage to pursue that vision. Thank you.
Pauline Park, Ph.D. is co-chair and co-founder of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and secretary and co-founder of Queens Pride House (a Center for the LGBT Communities of Queens). She is also a member of the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) and Also-Known-As (an organization for adult intercountry adoptees), as well as the advisory committee of OUTfront, the LGBT program of Amnesty International. She co-founded Gay Asians & Pacific Islanders of Chicago (GAPIC) in 1994 and Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997.
- Newsday, October 20, 2000.