Something happened earlier this week that stunned many longtime LGBTQ advocates. On Dec. 12, Empire State Pride Agenda, New York state’s leading LGBTQ policy advocacy group, announced that it was winding down operations.
An advocacy organization closing up shop isn’t in itself all that surprising. Nonprofits frequently fold, often due to lack of funds or instability in leadership. What was surprising was the spin the organization chose to put on the announcement. According to the group’s press release, its leadership “determined that the Pride Agenda has achieved its top policy goals, and are proud that the organization’s achievements in the last quarter century have profoundly changed the lives of more than 1.5 million LGBT New Yorkers and their families, and set an example for the entire nation.”
Although it’s true that Empire State Pride Agenda, the state of New York, and the LGBTQ movement as a whole have come a very long way, we’re frankly shocked by the organization’s declaration of “mission accomplished.” This announcement exacerbates the perception that once same-sex marriage became legal nationally, there was no LGBTQ equality work left to do. This perception is both wrong and dangerous.
Let’s start with the state of New York and look at how well it protects (or doesn’t protect) its transgender residents from discrimination. Although the state has an anti-discrimination law that protects lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (SONDA, the Sexual Orientation Nondiscrimination Act), that law was passed in 2002 without protections for transgender New Yorkers. That was due in large part to strategic decisions made by—you guessed it—Empire State Pride Agenda, which decided to jettison pushing for trans protections in the law in exchange for more expedient passage of the bill. This decision drew furious criticism from many in the LGBTQ community, and it is one that a former ESPA executive director has said publicly that he regrets.
Fast-forward to today, and there are still no statutory protections for trans New Yorkers. After 15 years of advocates trying in vain to return to the legislature to fix SONDA, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put a Band-Aid on the problem by issuing an executive order extending protections to trans folks. The problem with that solution is that an executive order can be rescinded following regime change in Albany, so the protections extended to trans New Yorkers are far flimsier than those extended to gays and lesbians. In other words, after failing transgender New Yorkers in the first instance, Empire State is doing it again—even though transgender people face discrimination at astounding rates.
Along the same lines, much work remains for transgender and gender nonconforming students in New York. Although New York is one of the minority of states that protects students from discrimination based on gender identity, the reality is that harassment, threats, and violence are still the norm. A report issued earlier this year by the New York Civil Liberties Union documents these problems in detail. By saying that its work is done, Empire State is ignoring the fact that laws are often insufficient by themselves to improve the lives of real people. More work needs to be done to be sure that the laws are implemented to carry out their intended goals.
Next, let’s move on to how well New York recognizes alternative family structures. Frankly, the situation is pretty bad. For example, in New York, compensated surrogacy is actually criminalized. That’s right—if New York couples (often gay men) want to create a family through surrogacy, they have to leave the state in order to evade the law. Lawyers who try to write surrogacy contracts in New York can be convicted of a felony. A New York state legislator has recently introduced a legislative fix for this, and—up until now—had the support of Empire State Pride Agenda. But now, before any fix has been implemented, Empire State Pride Agenda is no longer; it’s apparently walked off the job when it comes to advocating for gay men who want to create families using their own genetic material.
These are just a few of the ways that Empire State Pride Agenda’s message about its closure doesn’t make logical sense for the people of New York. But this message also matters to everyone in the country who cares about achieving equality for LGBTQ people.
One of the great fears of LGBTQ activists has been that, once the Supreme Court decided that marriage equality was the law of the land, people would believe that the gay rights movement was over, because all LGBTQ people’s problems were solved. Notwithstanding the fact that—among many other issues—there are no national laws protecting against discrimination, LGBTQ youth suffer in a multitude of ways, trans individuals are disproportionately victims of violence and imprisonment, and marriage equality has raised a whole host of new family law issues for LGBTQ people, activists worried that a high-profile win from the Supreme Court would give people the impression that everything, to quote the song, is now awesome when it comes to LGBTQ rights in America.
Empire State Pride Agenda’s decision to spin its dissolution as “mission accomplished” contributes to that grave misimpression. When one of the nation’s most influential LGBTQ rights organizations says that nothing more of any substance remains to be done, that message reverberates around the country. Any nuance about this being specific to New York (notwithstanding the concerns we raised above) is lost in the national noise machine.
This matters not only for national, state, and local policy, but also for LGBTQ individuals’ lives. It’s completely conceivable that when someone is discriminated against because of sexual orientation or gender identity, the response from a friend, colleague, neighbor, or random Facebooker might be, “You got what you wanted from the Supreme Court—what are you complaining about now?” Messages like Empire State Pride Agenda’s only make this response more likely, which in turn now risks the financial stability of other LGBTQ rights organizations, whose donors may now believe that their dollars are no longer needed.
As former nonprofit civil-rights lawyers, we both understand very well that sometimes organizations can no longer sustain themselves and that there are a myriad of very credible, responsible reasons why a nonprofit might choose to disband. Had Empire State Pride Agenda given any of those reasons for its closure, we would lament its loss—but we would not be writing today.
As it stands, the organization’s game-over messaging around this decision holds the potential to do real and lasting damage to the LGBTQ rights movement. We can only hope that new organizations will form in New York to take up the work left undone in the state and across the nation—and that donors can still be convinced that the job is far from finished.