Ten New York Republican Senators made some serious gay headway when they introduced a queer inclusive anti-bullying bill last week. The move surprised many, especially considering that Senatorial Republicans have for six years dismissed a similar bill, the Dignity Bill. It’s not that oppositional Senators support bullying, but many objected to the bills’ explicit inclusion of gender identity and expression, ananathema for right-leaning lawmakers.
Entitled the “Safe Schools for All Children Bill,” this latest measure looks a lot like the Dignity Bill, including trans protections, but there are subtle differences. Perhaps most importantly, “Safe Schools” leaves no room for litigation. That is, students and parents aren’t granted the right to sue, a subject the Dignity Bill didn’t address. Safe Schools also includes the pragmatic cyber-bullying stipulation, another piece left out of Dignity.
Legislative differences aside, an examination of Safe Schools’ success over the oft-dismissed Dignity Bill provides some lessons in political persistence, timing and a bit of post-9/11 geography.
Jeff Cook, a political consultant who has worked with the organization since 2002, describes how he and his peers pushed for marriage equality in the Senate last year and, facing resistance, decided to venture into new territory.
When we started to look at what was most attainable in the short term, we felt like that soft spots in the Dignity Bill – that was something that we had an opportunity to address and to use our political capital to try to move that forward.
Cook and company’s political capital may have meant nothing had it not been for then-Senator Joseph Bruno, the resigned party leader who Cook credits with jump starting negotiations:
We had a face-to-face meeting with Senator Bruno and we talked about the Safe Schools bill and said we thought it made a lot of sense and he said, ‘We should get that done this year,’ and his staff started paying attention, so from that we started working with the staff. So we started on crafting and negotiating language.
Foreseeing challenges with gender identity and expression, the Cabinites worked with gay non-profit Empire State Pride Agenda to add another level to the argument. Rather than focusing on the “trans” implications of such legislation, the group highlighted the fact that many students aren’t targeted for being “gay,” but for not conforming to gender norms. That may be a simple fact for some of you, but New York’s Republican party’s not always the most progressive.
After a series of back room meetings, Cook says, they had finally rallied enough support to introduce the bill. Newly inducted Governor David Paterson, however, would throw an inadvertent wrench into their well-timed plan.