Pauline Park: "Campaign for a Transgender Rights Law," NYC, June 2000-April 2002

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"how this victory came about"

Pauline Park, Ph.D. "The Making of a Movement: The Story of the Successful Campaign for a Transgender Rights Law in New York City." The 8th Annual Mark E. Ouderkirk Lecture, The Museum of the City of New York, June 27, 2002. Copyright (c) 2008 by Pauline Park. All rights reserved.[1]

The Transformation of the Political Context

To begin with, I would like to take you back to a hot summer afternoon four years ago. It was on June 30, 1998 that seven people gathered in David Valentine’s living room in his apartment in Greenwich Village to found an organization that was to be called the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy. In three days, this organization will be four years old, still a toddler in the developmental life cycle of an organization. When we founded NYAGRA four years ago, it was only seven people sitting in David’s apartment, thinking big and dreaming of a day when transgendered and gender-variant people would enjoy full legal equality in this city and this state.

It is important to realize, as we celebrate the passage of Int. No. 24, that four years ago, the idea of a transgender rights bill passing the New York City Council in April 2002 would have seemed far-fetched; and anyone who would have suggested that that bill would pass the Council 45-5 would have been accused of delusions of grandeur.

I would encourage you to go to the offices of Gay City News – the successor to Lesbian & Gay New York – and to go through back issues of LGNY; you won’t see any stories about transgender rights. Look at old issues of the New York Blade News, too, and you’ll find nothing about transgender rights. There might be the occasional article about transgender-inclusive social services or a transgendered victim of a hate crime; and of course, you’ll find the usual photos of drag queens and other performers sprinkled in amongst the ‘serious’ news. But you’ll see little about a visible transgender community and nothing about anything that even remotely resembles an organized transgender political movement. If the virtual absence of any transgender political organizing is apparent in the gay press from 1998, in the mainstream media in New York, you’ll notice a complete absence of anything about transgender rights.

Four years ago, no mainstream politician in New York had even heard the word ‘transgender.’ A few openly gay or lesbian elected officials were quietly talking about these issues, but only within small circles and even then, only sporadically. Social services for the transgender community were extremely limited, and the only transgender-specific program of any prominence was the Gender Identity Project of what was then known as the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center; today, of course, it bears the inclusive organizational name, ‘LGBT Community Center,’ and I’m delighted to recognize the Center as a co-sponsor of this event. Four years ago, the New York City Gay & Lesbian Pride March featured the usual gaggle of drag queens, but there was no ‘transgender’ in its name. This Sunday, marchers will stride down Fifth Avenue in the first LGBT Pride March sponsored by Heritage of Pride, which last fall changed the name of all of its events to be bisexual- and transgender-inclusive.

Four years ago, there were a few small transgender political organizations, but there were none that were actively involved in the legislative arena, and none whose name would have been recognized by any non-gay politician. Four years ago, no one was talking about transgender inclusion in discrimination or hate crimes law; it simply wasn’t on the agenda.

Today, virtually every organization in this city has adopted ‘LGBT’ as either part of its name, its sub-title, or its organizational self-description. And not only LGBT social service providers and AIDS agencies, but non-LGBT, non-AIDS social service providers are rushing to include ‘transgender’ in their mission statements and in their programming.

Candidates for citywide and statewide office are actually using the ‘T’ word, and whether they are fully on board with the legislative agenda of the transgender community, they are at the very least paying lip service to our issues. And of course, we now have a city human rights law that explicitly includes gender identity and expression.

There’s still a long way to go in order to ensure that all transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people can live lives free from invidious discrimination and violence. But we can say that New York City is now the largest jurisdiction in the country to have adopted a transgender anti-discrimination law through legislation; and that is an achievement for a still-small organization that is only four years old and a community that remains among the most marginalized in this city.

What we are witnessing is the transformation of transgender rights from a marginal issue discussed only within a small circle of transgender activists to an issue that candidates for elected office in this city and increasingly throughout the state must address. Hence it is not only a transformation of transgender rights as an issue, it is nothing less than the transformation of the political context in which the issue of transgender rights is discussed. To put it in terms that a social construction theorist might use, the discourse of transgender rights and of transgender inclusion has become the dominant discourse within the LGBT community here in New York City. Indeed, the very fact that we call it an ‘LGBT community’ today, and not simply a ‘lesbian and gay community,’ as it was widely referred to back in 1998, shows how far we’ve come. If ‘discourse’ is simply a way of thinking and talking about something, then the way in which we think of ourselves as a community has changed, and equally significantly, the way we communicate that to the non-queer world has also changed. And the passage of Intro 24 reflects the transformation of that discourse.

Enactment of that law is NYAGRA’s greatest legislative victory, and the greatest legislative victory for the transgender community in this city and in this state. We deserve the opportunity to celebrate the tremendous achievement that it represents. But I believe it is also incumbent upon us to understand how this victory came about. For it is only by engaging in a rigorous examination of the campaign for Intro 24 that we can understand how to reproduce it elsewhere, in other cities and at the statewide level, where such a breakthrough is not yet in sight. And so we must move beyond a mere description of this campaign to an explanation of it.

What I would like to do today, therefore, is to explain as well as to describe the emergence of a movement for transgender rights through the perspective of the campaign for Int. No. 24, the transgender rights bill first introduced in the New York City Council as Int. No. 754 in June 2000. Towards that end, I will turn to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, which provides a conceptual framework that may be useful for explaning the success of the campaign for Intro 24, even if there is nothing LGBT-specific in the book itself.

The central hypothesis of The Tipping Point is that "ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do" (Gladwell, p. 7). While we ordinarily associate the term ‘epidemic’ with horrible diseases such as the bubonic plague, the Ebola virus, and HIV/AIDS, there are both good and bad epidemics. An example of a bad epidemic that Gladwell cites in his book is the epidemic of smoking among youth, while an example of a good epidemic – ‘good’ at least for their manufacturer – was the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies, the out-of-fashion shoes from the 1950s that once again became wildly fashionable in the 1990s among young people in lower Manhattan.

Just as one could describe an explosion of crime as a ‘bad’ epidemic, so the dramatic fall of crime such as took place here in New York City could be conceptualized as a ‘good’ epidemic. Gladwell goes into considerable depth in describing and explaining the ‘Broken Windows’ theory of crime that Bill Bratton applied as police commissioner. The theory was that addressing small crimes such as graffiti-tagging and turnstile-jumping in the subway could lead tobig overall reductions in crime, and it seems to have worked spectacularly well. There is, of course, the whole issue of racial profiling, which is not addressed in the book, but the point of the example is simply to illustrate how small changes in the lived urban environment can radically alter the context in which crime takes place. What I would like to do, a la Gladwell, is to call the campaign for the New York City transgender rights bill an epidemic (of the best sort), and use this address to attempt to explain it. For it seems to me that it is not enough simply to describe the campaign; to be able to draw lessons that might be useful to activists elsewhere, it is incumbent on us to understand the reasons for its success, and that requires something more akin to social science.

Now, one might think that a Ph.D. in political science would qualify one to attempt such an explanation. But the truth is, academic political science is full of theories of limited explanatory value and dubious utility to advocates and activists in the so-called ‘real world.’ Other than the notion of ‘band-waggoning’ – which is, just as its name might imply, the notion that politicians jump on the band wagon once they see a success in the making – there is little in academic political science that I find useful for attempting to explain the success of the campaign for Intro 24. Indeed, it may be the very fact that Malcolm Gladwell stands outside the charmed circle of academic political science theorists that he can think so clearly and creatively. Gladwell has no need to get articles published in the American Political Science Review, and as a journalist, he writes far better – more clearly and more entertainingly – than most academic political scientists.

In his book, Gladwell offers three simple laws to explain social change, and illustrates these with interesting case studies that offer compelling evidence for the theory of the tipping point. The three rules of epidemics, as he calls, them, are these:

Rule I. The Law of the Few. "Social epidemics...are driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people," Gladwell declares.[2] According to Gladwell’s theory, social change is engineered by a relatively small number of people in any context.

Rule II. The Stickiness Factor. According to Gladwell, "There are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes."[3].

Rule III. The Power of Context. As Gladwell puts it, "The lesson of the Power of Context is that we are more than just sensitive to changes in context; we are exquisitely sensitive to them."[4]

This, then is the theory of the tipping point. At its core is the hypothesis that an epidemic is about the process of transformation – of attitudes and of behavior – by a small number of people working creatively to change reality. And that is fairly accurate description of the campaign for Intro 24.

The Law of the Few

The campaign was certainly successful in generating broad support for this bill within the LGBT community, and even more importantly, in generating broad public support beyond that community. But at its heart, the campaign was run by a very small group of people.

It was in October 1999 that NYAGRA first convened what would become known as the legislative work group on gender-based discrimination, working in partnership with the Empire State Pride Agenda, the leading statewide lesbian and gay political organization. Tim Sweeney, then deputy director of the Pride Agenda, hosted the October 8 meeting at ESPA’s Manhattan office on Hudson Street.

By the second meeting, in November 1998, the composition of the group was more or less set, and it included representatives from NYAGRA, ESPA, the GIP, and the offices of six members of the City Council. These six Councilmembers were to become the primary sponsors of Int. No. 754, as it was first introduced in June 2000. They included the three openly gay or lesbian members of the Council – Margarita Lopez, Christine Quinn, and Philip Reed. The inclusion of the three gay Councilmembers would not have surprised anyone in the Council. But the work group also included three non-gay members – Bill Perkins, Ronnie Eldridge, and Steve DiBrienza. Ronnie is a well-known feminist from the very liberal Upper East Side and Steve is a progressive from Park Slope, known in the queer community as Dyke Slope. Bill Perkins is an African American man from Harlem, and he ultimately became the lead sponsor of the bill. Importantly, Steve was also then chair of the General Welfare Committee, the Council committee with oversight authority over the New York City Human Rights Commission and more broadly, issues of human rights and civil rights in the city.

The work group chose me as its coordinator, and in that role, I served as the point person for the campaign and its spokesperson. I worked closely with Tim Sweeney and then, after his move to San Francisco in November 2000, with Matt Foreman, ESPA’s executive director. I also worked extensively with Ralph Wilson, field organizer at the Pride Agenda, as well as other ESPA staff. And I worked with Council staff, who proved crucial in helping their Councilmembers move the bill forward. Janice Minott, legislative director to Councilmember Bill Perkins; Rosie Mendez, chief of staff to Councilmember Margarita Lopez; Peter Rider, legislative aide and later chief of staff to Councilmember Christine Quinn, Fiona Oliphant, legislative aide and community liaison to Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge; and Michael Polenberg, legislative aide to Councilmember Steve DiBrienza, were an integral part of the work group and the campaign.

The point of listing these names is, first of all, to recognize the integral role that these individuals played in the campaign and to thank them for their contributions; and also to give you a sense of the relatively small size of the work group. While the composition of this group fluctuated, it never included more than 20 active members, and the regular meetings and conference calls usually involved no more than half a dozen to a dozen participants. A typical conference call of the legislative work group at any moment in 2000 or 2001 would include, for example, me, Tim Sweeney, Margarita Lopez, Bill Perkins, Peter Rider, and Fiona Oliphant, or perhaps some other combination of a half dozen or so participants. Hence the legislative work group –- the steering committee for the campaign – clearly exemplifies Gladwell’s first principle, the Law of the Few. In his book, Gladwell cites the 80/20 rule of economists: 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.

Through the efforts of the legislative work group, and in particular, ESPA and NYAGRA, we were able to put together a broad coalition of organizations and individuals who supported the bill, including virtually every major LGBT organization in the city as well as leading national LGBT organizations such as the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund. But we were also able to solicit the support of leading non-LGBT organizations such as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund, the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund, the People for the American Way, and the National Organization for Women (New York City chapter). In addition to these leading civil rights organizations, we also engaged the support of people of faith, including such prominent religious figures as the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes of Riverside Memorial Church. And we were able to get the support of District Council 37, the largest labor union in the city.

The diversity of the coalition made a powerful statement about the breadth and depth of support for our bill, and it enabled us to cast our campaign in the light of civil rights struggles of the past. However, as with most coalitions of this sort, the actual day-to-day work of the campaign continued to be done by a handful of members of the legislative work group, and so the size of the coalition belies the extent to which it actually illustrates the 80/20 rule and the Law of the Few.

In his book, Gladwell offers a taxonomy of three different personality types: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Gladwell declares boldly, "If you are interested in starting a word-of-mouth epidemic, your resources ought to be solely concentrated on those three groups. No one else matters" (p. 256). Connectors are simply people who know everyone. As Gladwell puts it, "Connectors... are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches" (p. 48).

From NYAGRA’s perspective, the first and most important Connector with whom we connected was Tim Sweeney. It was not an exaggeration to say that Tim knew everyone in the LGBT community here, since he had worked with just about everyone during his many years of activism in New York. Even more importantly, Tim worked on a daily basis with both gay and non-gay elected officials and other important figures in the political arena, and it was through him and his good offices that we first approached the openly gay Councilmembers, in meetings with Phil Reed and Margarita Lopez in January and Chris Quinn in April. Each of these three Councilmembers, in turn, served as Connectors themselves, with Margarita bringing Bill Perkins and Ronnie Eldridge into the inner circle and with Chris Quinn bringing Steve DiBrienza into the loop.

If these Connectors were crucial to introducing the bill and the campaign to the political elite, Mavens were crucial in providing expertise on transgender law. Mavens are ‘data banks,’ as Gladwell types them, experts and collectors of information about the areas of life that they are interested in. Among our most important Mavens were Paisley Currah and Shannon Minter, whose research on similar legislation helped inform the language of the bill. The third personality type involved here is the Salesman (to use Gladwell’s gender-biased term). According to Gladwell, Salesmen are those individuals "with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing" (p. 70). In fact, all of the members of the legislative work group did double duty as Connectors and as Salesmen. The ‘advocates’ – especially Tim and me – were joined in our advocacy by the elected officials, who themselves became advocates for the bill in the Council and in the media.

The Stickiness Factor

Transgender identity is an enormously complex phenomenon, and it would have been easy to get involved in long discussions of the various types of transgender identities found in the community. There were at least three issues related to transgender identity that potentially could have derailed discussions of Intro 24.

First was the issue of sex reassignment surgery, which makes a lot of people uneasy and which could have raised the subsidiary issue of payment for SRS. True, the notion that the City of New York would be bankrupted by a rush of city employees to have sex-change operations was a complete red herring, given that payment for SRS was not part of the legislation; but at the beginning of the campaign, this fear could not have been wholly discounted.

Second was the issue of cross-dressing in the workplace, which could have alarmed the business community, as it did in New Orleans when their transgender rights bill became whittled down to a bill to protect the rights of transitioning and post-op transsexuals.

Third was the issue of religious strictures on gender identity and expression, which could have triggered the intervention of the cardinal and other conservative religious leaders.

The strategy that we pursued was to frame the issue as one of basic human rights; the issue could be reduced to one simple word: discrimination. The message was that transgendered and gender-variant people faced pervasive discrimination, and that they were not fully protected under current law and would not be until this bill was passed. We consciously articulated this campaign in the light of the history of previous civil rights struggles, including the campaign for the gay rights bill that passed the New York City Council in 1986 after years of activism. And in explaining the host of transgender identities, we used a simple diagram that I devised, composed of three concentric circles to illustrate the three populations at risk from discrimination: the transsexual, the transgendered, and gender-variant people, even if, as the Commissioner for Human Rights maintained, post-operative transsexuals were already included under law. The diagram helped us from getting diverted by long digressions about the differences between this and that transgender identity. We could not afford to get caught up in endless discussions of definitions and questions about what the difference between a ‘transsexual’ and a ‘transvestite’ was. The diagram enabled us to move quickly through definitional territory to the issue at hand, the need for this legislation. To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign, our theme could well have been, "It’s discrimination, stupid." And who could be for discrimination...? Hence, the simplicity of the campaign’s central message contributed to our ability to persuade those who needed to be persuaded.

Continued at: Pauline Park: "Campaign," part 2

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  1. Introduction to Lecture: It is indeed a high honor as well as a great pleasure to speak to you today. I would like to thank the hard-working staff of the Museum of the City of New York, including Lavinia Mancuso and David Spiher, who made this happen, and Steve Turtell, who first suggested my name for this event and who has since moved onto the South Street Seaport Museum." [New paragraph] "I am particularly honored to be the first openly transgendered person to deliver the Ouderkirk lecture, and I am delighted that the Ouderkirk family and the Museum have chosen this occasion to change the name of the event permanently to the Mark E. Ouderkirk Memorial Lecture for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Programming. It is appropriate and fitting that the occasion of my speech should serve as the catalyst for the change in the name of the event to make it transgender-inclusive in name as it has become in fact, and this small but significant alteration is ironically enough an illustration of the very point of my talk, which is about how social change is made in small steps that yield big advances.
  2. Gladwell, page 21.
  3. Gladwell, page 25).
  4. Gladwell, page 140.