Koch: Albany should pass a gay rights bill

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Former Mayor Ed Koch wrote a weekly column for New York Newsday from 1999-2000. This column first appeared in November 1999.

RECENT EVENTS demonstrate that public support for gays and lesbians has increased significantly.

Last week, Daniel Stewart, a former Air Force sergeant, was elected mayor of Plattsburgh, a town in upstate New York. Stewart had publicly identified himself as homosexual, but neither he nor his opponent ever raised his sexual orientation as an issue during the campaign.


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A few days later in Laramie, Wyo., Aaron McKinney, one of the two men who murdered Matthew Shepard, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

The jury ultimately found McKinney guilty after he claimed that he murdered the young man because he was enraged by Shepard's sexual advances. Before the jury reached its verdict, the judge ruled McKinney's defense, known as the "gay panic defense," out of order.

Nevertheless the jury could have engaged in jury nullification, overruled the judge and found the defendant not guilty. Significantly, this happened in a state that prides itself on its "Marl- boro Man" image.

In spite of these and other events that reflect an increase in public support for gay rights, many cities and states have yet to pass legislation to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1986, when I was mayor, the City of New York enacted a local law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing. Without this law, employers could legally discriminate against gays or lesbians and could fire them or not hire them for that reason, without any remedy for the victim. New York City remains one of only a handful of cities and states that have such a law.

Surprisingly, New York State, which has so often led the way in progressive, compassionate legislation, is not one of them.

Year after year, State Sen. Roy Goodman introduces legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, only to be denied a vote by the Republican-Conservative Senate leadership. This year, Mike Long, the chairman of the Conservative Party, informed me that a conscience vote (a vote not subject to party discipline) would be permitted on the Goodman bill (a companion bill passes the Assembly each year) if a vote on the partial-birth abortion bill would be permitted simultaneously in the Assembly (a companion bill passes the Senate year after year).

Regardless of how legislators would vote on these bills if permitted to do so, providing the opportunity for both chambers to vote on them is fair.

I support both proposed laws-gay rights and prohibition of partial-birth abortion -and wrote gay rights advocates including Assembs. Richard Gottfried, Deborah Glick, Scott Stringer, Barbara Clark, Felix Ortiz, Nick Perry, Philip Boyle; Sen. Eric Schneiderman; Speaker Sheldon Silver, and the legal director of Lambda, Beatrice Dohrn, to urge them to support allowing a vote. I was shocked by their responses and, in Silver's case, total silence.

They wrote that they would not support a vote on the partial-birth abortion bill even if by simply allowing their colleagues to vote on it without any agreement on the outcome of the vote, they could assure the passage of a gay-rights bill for the State of New York.

Deborah Glick, for example, wrote: "I was surprised to read your recommendation to barter away the constitutional rights of one group of people to ensure the constitutional rights of another group." Ridiculous. Allowing a vote is "bartering away ... constitutional rights"? In January, 1975, I co-sponsored with Bella Abzug and three other members of Congress legislation to do on a federal level what was ultimately done in New York City in 1986. Three years ago, Sen. Edward Kennedy offered a similar amendment and the proposal was defeated by a narrow margin of 50 to 49.

Progress! It is surprising that the supporters of gay and lesbian equality in employment and housing aren't outraged and denouncing legislators who refuse to support the offer allowing votes on the two issues: gay rights (overwhelmingly supported by Democrats) and partial-birth abortion prohibition (overwhelmingly supported by Republicans).

Albany legislators normally trade on party issues. Here, we are dealing with two matters of conscience.

In a failed effort to help elect a Rockland County Democrat to the State Senate, several of these Assembly members and Speaker Sheldon Silver recently voted to end the commuter tax. This cost the City of New York $ 380 million annually. So much for integrity. We should throw the rascals out.

Let the legislators decide the outcomes in votes free from party discipline.

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