When the United States Justice Department proposed radical changes to the way intelligence was gathered in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, most of New York City's delegation to Congress agreed to the "USA Patriot Act" (In PDF format) in October 2002. The vote was 98-1 in the Senate, with Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) dissenting and New York's Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton enthusiastically supporting it. Among New York City's fourteen House members, only four voted nay: Democrats Jerry Nadler (West Side), Jose Serrano (Bronx), Nydia Velazquez (Queens) and Major Owens (Brooklyn). Even such notable liberals as Carolyn Maloney (East Side), Anthony Weiner (Brooklyn), Charles Rangel (Harlem), Eliot Engel (Bronx), and Gregory Meeks (Queens) went along with the legislation.
A debate has raged ever since, particularly in New York, about whether civil liberties were deeply and unnecessarily compromised by the Patriot Act or whether the government needs still more extraordinary powers in order to thwart terrorists. Indeed, a more far-reaching Patriot Act II ("the Homeland Security Act") is before Congress now. But Nadler, whose district includes Ground Zero, is working on legislation to modify what he sees as the excesses of the first Patriot Act.
"The Justice Department," Nadler wrote in his most recent newsletter, "changed its rules to allow for listening to attorney-client conversations, undercover surveillance of religious institutions, military tribunals, and the designation of United States citizens as enemy combatants." He also complained about the lack of cooperation from the Department of Justice in answering questions from the House Judiciary Committee and cited a reportfrom the department's Inspector General that found a "'pattern of physical and verbal abuse' of detainees rounded up after September 11th." He not only attacked provisions in the law for "sneak and peak" searches ("of people's homes without notifying them afterwards"), but he voted for an amendment to deny federal funds to be used for such a purpose. It passed this summer 309-111.
The New York Library Association this year passed the Patriot Act Resolutionopposing "the use of governmental authority to infringe upon constitutionally protected privacy by data mining vast amounts of information on people not suspected of any crime, to suppress the free and open exchange of recorded information and knowledge." Their resolution "encourages all librarians, library administrators, and library advocates to inform their communities, staff, and patrons about the ramifications and the dangers of current legislation, including the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act, and other current legislation that threaten patron privacy and the confidentiality of library records."
The post-9/11 legislation has its defenders in New York. "Stop the Cheap Shots at the Patriot Act," wroteformer Mayor Ed Koch and Long Island Republican Congressman Peter King in a New York Post op-ed. Terrorism, they said, "threatens our national survival. Yet, listening to an increasingly shrill chorus of political voices, Americans could almost conclude that the real threat to our country comes not from bin Laden and al Qaeda but John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act." They assert the law is not being abused and quote Democratic Senator Joe Biden as saying that the Department of Justice has "done a pretty good job in terms of implementing" the law. And while they say that the provisions of the law that allow investigators to search library records "has not been used even once," it is "a weapon that must remain in the prosecutor's arsenal." They commend President Bush, whom Koch has endorsed for re-election, and Attorney General Ashcroft "for the superb job they've done over the last two years. Our liberties have been protected and our country has not been attacked."
In December, Judge Emily Jane Goodman wrote in Gotham Gazette's "Law" topic page about the Bill of Rights Defense Campaignthat began this year in New York, mainly sponsored by the New York Civil Liberties Union. On December 2, about 300 stalwarts demonstrated outside City Hall in bitterly cold weather pushing for passage of City Council Resolution 909 from Council Member Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) "calling upon federal, state, and local officials, and upon New York City agencies and institutions to affirm and uphold civil rights and civil liberties." Already passed in three states and 215 communities, it specifically targets the Patriot Act for allowing "the indefinite incarceration of citizens as 'enemy combatants' without access to counsel," opening the door to abuse of electronic surveillance in "ordinary" investigations, giving law enforcement access to medical and financial records with "little if any judicial oversight," instituting an "overbroad" definition of terrorism, and more.
This City Council resolution calls for a lot of changes such as asking the police department to "refrain" from certain practices such as ethnic profiling, but it does not require anything. It was supposed to have been passed in the Council on December 15 after a 7-2 vote of approval in the Government Operations Committee, but Speaker Gifford Miller (D-East Side), who had spoken at the rally in favor of it earlier in the month, did not want the Council's actions to be interpreted as raining on the celebration of the capture of Saddam Hussein the day before in Iraq. Miller and Perkins wrote to the Bill of Rights Campaign promising a full Council vote at the "earliest possible date in the next legislative session."
The question is, why doesn't the council use its powers to make laws to require the kinds of things of the police and others that it is calling for in this resolution? Perkins said that once the resolution passes, "we'll see what we can do legislatively." Also on the substantive front, the New York Library Association is bringing suit against provisions of the Patriot Act that they deem unconstitutional.
The Justice Department is not ready to back down on any of the Patriot Act provisions. Their director of public affairs, Mark Corralo, saidin October, "Those who would seek to repeal or water down the important tools in the Patriot Act would return America to the level of vulnerability to terrorist attack that existed prior September 11, 2001." Nadler said that the Bush administration is now trying to get the things it wants in Patriot Act II into appropriations bills "without having any chance to debate it." He believes that one day, this country will look back in shame over the Patriot Act the way it does at the Espionage Act of 1917, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and the McCarthy Era during the Cold War.
When those civil liberties restrictions were enacted, there certainly were protests, but not the mass kind that get things reversed. Hundreds of thousands in New York protested the war in Iraq back in February and March, but only a tiny fraction of that number has been on the government's case over the rollback in civil liberties. The New Yorkers most affected by the Patriot Act are immigrants, legal and illegal, many of whom have gotten swept up in the government's use of its new powers and are the least likely to protest their mistreatment.
Jason Helperinof Doctors without Borders wrote in April on Alternet.org of dining in a midtown Indian restaurant with his roommate, Asher, who is of South Asian descent, prior to going to a Broadway show when "all of a sudden, there was a terrible commotion and five NYPD in bulletproof vests stormed down the stairs. They had their guns drawn and were pointing them indiscriminately at the restaurant staff and at us." They were detained by agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service as well as Homeland Security, denied legal counsel, and told repeatedly, "We are at war." After several hours, they were released and received an apology. Helperin later learned the whole raid had been a "mistake."
Nat Hentoffof the Village Voice, our resident First Amendment absolutist, writes regularly about the ongoing battles over the Patriot Act and the proposals to strengthen it.
The next time these issues are likely to be debated intensely in the mainstream will be when the Republican National Convention comes to town in late August. Many groups have already filed for places to march and rally against the Bush administration. As the president insists that terrorists hate us because they hate our "freedom," it will be a test for the government, right down to the level of the New York Police Department, as to how much freedom will be sustained when security concerns are so heightened.
The Federal Marriage Amendment
This February, Congress will take up the Federal Marriage Amendment to the United States Constitution that proposes to limit marriage and its benefits to man-woman couples. No state currently issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples. When Hawaii looked as if it were going to in 1996, the Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act barring the federal government from recognizing such unions and allowing the states not to give full faith and credit to such contracts in other states. But the recent ruling from the Massachusetts high court that gay couples are entitled to marry has set off this current push for a constitutional amendment, one that President Bush said he will support "if necessary," which has been interpreted to mean if the courts try to force states outside Massachusetts from recognizing gay marriages performed there.
The Federal Marriage Amendment reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups." It's main backers, the Alliance for Marriage, say that it will not prohibit states from recognizing civil unions or the domestic partnerships that gay and straight couples can register for in New York City. But opponents take the phrase "legal incidents thereof" to mean just what it says and warn that passage could overturn the City's law among others. There is also a more conservative coalition of representatives of the religious rights called the Arlington Groupwhich is explicit about pushing an amendment that would ban civil unions and domestic partnerships.
The Massachusetts legislature, for its part, is trying to see if a Vermont-style civil union scheme (all the rights of marriage but not the name) will satisfy the court.
Almost 40 states have passed laws or constitutional amendments prohibiting recognition of gay nuptials. New York has not passed a state version of the Defense of Marriage Act, but its marriage law has been interpreted by the State Department of Health to only permit marriages for heterosexual couples.
For the federal constitutional amendment to be enacted, it must be passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and then win votes in three-quarters of the state legislatures. Even many opponents of same-sex marriage such as New York's Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer have come out against amending the constitution for this purpose. While the New York Timestrumpeted a story on its front page that support for the amendment is "strong" at 55 percent of the American people, amendments banning flag burning and requiring a balanced budget polled favorably at upwards of 80 percent and have not even gotten past Congress. Lobbyists against the amendment say they can count on 34 Senators to oppose it, but that number could change if it is rewritten to just ban same-sex marriage and not the benefits of marriage to gay couples.
While New Jersey's legislature is enacting limited domestic partners legislation, in part because a same-sex marriage lawsuit is working its way through their courts, the New York legislature is avoiding the issue thus far. Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver won't take a stand on the issue. Republic Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno said gay people don't "need" to get married. And Governor George Pataki reiterated his stand that the state's marriage laws are "fine the way they are." With New York surrounded by states grappling with the issue very intensely, it is not likely that Albany will be able to keep avoiding it for long.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-West Side) is sponsoring a piece of legislation that would grant some recognition to gay couples. His Permanent Partners Immigration Act(HR 832) has 119 sponsors. It lets "United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to sponsor their permanent partners for residence in the United States, and for other purposes." It is a long way from passing a Republican Congress, but recognition like this is often the first kind accorded to gay couples in places ranging from Brazil to the United Kingdom.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.
As the year comes to an end and a newly-elected (but scarcely changed) City Council is about to take office, a series of civil rights bills that have been kicking around City Hall for a while now are finally getting their first hearings. Council sponsors are expecting action on them either this month or when the new Council is seated in January.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg introduced a bill, Intro 417, earlier this year in an attempt to make the City's human rights law "substantially equivalent" to the federal Fair Housing Act. The City Commission on Human Rights desired the change because they want, in this era of drastic budget cuts, to make themselves eligible for money from Washington to investigate fair housing cases.
Disability rights groups, including Disabled in Action, Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, and the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, testified at an October hearing before the General Welfare Committee that the proposed legislation would considerably weaken protections for the disabled currently available under the city law. At that hearing, the administration withdrew support for the bill in its current forum.
Craig Gurian, who is now heading the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, offered an analysis of the problems with 417 (In PDF Format) and a substitute bill(In PDF Format) was drafted that would achieve the administration's goal of "equivalence" without weakening city protections for the disabled. The substitute has yet to be introduced. Gurian was the principal drafter for the Human Rights Commission of the comprehensive 1991 amendments to strengthen the human rights law.
POSTING SUMMARY OF HUMAN RIGHTS LAW IN PUBLIC PLACES
The Human Rights Law Posting Bill, Intro 353, had its first hearing in General Welfare in October and was received favorably, according to civil rights activist Tom Smith who is the prime mover behind the idea of requiring that a summary of the City Human Rights Law be posted in every place of employment, housing, and public accommodation. "I firmly believe that the best way for people to prevent discrimination is for people to understand what their rights are and for employers and landlords to understand what the law is," said Smith. The chief sponsor of the legislation is Councilmember Alan Gerson of Lower Manhattan. Smith is hopeful that the bill will pass before the end of the year or early in 2004.
HOUSING AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
A bill that would cover survivors of domestic violence from housing and employment discrimination under the City Human Rights Law, Intro 107, also had its first hearing. The Council in 2001 banned workplace discrimination against domestic partner survivors. Councilmember David Yasskyof Brooklyn, the chief sponsor of the new bill, said that it "would extend coverage to survivors of sex offenses and stalking and grant all three groups further protection against discrimination in housing and public accommodation. Additionally, it would require employers and landlords to make reasonable accommodations for special needs of these survivors."
"Local Civil Rights Restoration Act"
Councilmember Gale Brewer has introduced the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act, Intro 439, that would strengthen the City Human Rights Law by making more allowances for precedent-setting cases, give attorneys more motivation for representing complainants by permitting them to recover fees in administrative cases, and make clear that the category of "marital status" in the law means not just that discrimination against single or married individuals is illegal, but that it is discriminatory to favor a single person over a married couple or vice-versa. The proposed changes were heard before the General Welfare Committee. "The administration doesn't love our bill," Brewer said, "but we're going to plow ahead. I'm working to expand the coalition and hope to pass it early next year."
The Equal Benefits Bill, Intro 271, introduced by Councilmember Christine Quinn of Chelsea, had its first hearing before the Contracts Committee on November 13. It would require those with city contractsof more than $100,000 to treat the domestic partners of their employees the same as the spouses of workers.
Despite anticipated opposition from conservative religious contractors that oppose homosexuality, the only ones to show up to testify against the bill were two representatives of the Bloomberg administration who were unprepared to answer questions from the committee about their legal objections. Terri Matthews of Deputy Mayor Marc Shaw's office testified that "the general municipal law prohibits social policy restrictions on municipal contracting" and that a city charter change would also be required. The counsel to the committee, Rob Newman, challenged both assertions.
The committee also heard from Cynthia Goldstein who administers the 1997 law in San Francisco that was the model for New York's bill. She claimed that the bill did not drive up contracting costs, was agreeable to most religious contractors including the Catholic Archdiocese, and reduced city spending on the uninsured.
Quinn's bill was backed by an 80-group coalition and has 37 sponsors, a veto-proof majority. She expects passage in December. If the mayor vetoes the bill, a promised override vote might have to wait until January.
HOW WILL THE SAME-SEX MARRIAGE DEBATE PLAY OUT IN NEW YORK?
The decisionof the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to open marriage to same-sex couples has once again put the spotlight on New York State's political leaders as to how they will address the issue here. Few are tipping their hands.
Same-sex couples have already returned from neighboring Vermont with civil unions and Ontario with marriage licenses and are slowly gaining recognition of their bonds from their local governments, employers, and others, but Massachusetts will actually be the first state in this country to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Their court has given the Massachusetts state legislature until May 2004 to implement the order. This is when, lawyers for the plaintiffs say, the state must have begun letting same-sex couples marry. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and legislative leaders in the state are trying to comply with the order by developing a civil union plan like Vermont's, but the court is not expected to accept anything less than full marriage rights.
New York is one of thirteen states that has not passed a law banning recognition of same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. The federal government enacted the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 in anticipation of Hawaii opening marriage to gay couples (even though the state ultimately never did), banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage and allowing the states an exemption from the full faith and credit clause of the constitution if they didn't want to honor gay marriages performed in other states. Thirty-seven states have done so.
There has been a state Defense of Marriage Act in Albany since 1996 and neither house of the legislature has acted to pass it into law. A bill to end sex discrimination in marriage was first introduced in the State Senate in 1999 and in the Assembly in 2002. Again, no action in either house.
Most same-sex partner recognition in New York State has come through the courts, with the state's Court of Appeals allowing two-parent adoptions for same-sex couples and succession rights in rent regulated apartments as early as the 1980s.
Governor Mario Cuomo extended domestic partner benefits to state employees in the early 1990s and Governor George Pataki, while publicly opposed to same-sex marriage, continued that program and has been allowing incremental gay partner rights since, especially after 9/11. The state's Crime Victims Board now recognizes same-sex partners when compensating victims of violent crime.
No same-sex married couple from Canada has started a court case for recognition in New York, but a Nassau man with a civil union is suing St. Vincent's hospital in Manhattan for the wrongful death of his "spouse," a word the Nassau County judge in the caseaccepted in granting him standing to sue earlier this year.
In the wake of the Massachusetts developments, Pataki is sticking with a statement that he is "comfortable" with the way the marriage laws in New York are. Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, an upstate Republican, said, "I don't believe people of the same sex need or ought to be legalized in marriage," though he has not vowed legislative action to prevent it. And Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) has remained mum on what his chamber will do to address the issue and refuses to state his own position on same-sex marriage, despite a recent resolution by the state Democratic Party endorsing it.
New York City has gone about as far as it can go in granting partner rights to gay couples, save for the contractors' bill described above. Mayor Ed Koch was the first to extend hospital visitation rights and bereavement leave to domestic partners in 1989. Mayor David Dinkins established a domestic partners registryand settled a case granting all city employees equal benefits for their domestic partners in 1993. (More than 72 percent of the city's registered domestic partners are in heterosexual couples.) Mayor Rudy Giuliani codified that settlement into law in 1998. And Mayor Mike Bloomberg signed into law a 2002 Council bill whereby the city recognizes domestic partnerships, civil unions, and same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-East Side) greeted the Massachusetts decision on same-sex marriage with a press conference supporting it.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.
After years of waiting for her petition for green card, Yuna Im, then 22 years old, found out that she was a year too old to apply for family based permanent resident status. The case had been pending since her parents, along with Im and her sisters, immigrated to the United States in 1989.
It was bittersweet that her younger sister was eligible for a permanent resident status on the very same day that Im began her life as an undocumented immigrant.
While her sister went on to college and received financial aid, Im could not afford to go to her dream school, the Fashion Institute of Technology, a State University of New York. As an undocumented immigrant, she is not qualified for any financial assistance.
"Sometimes I feel like I have nothing in the future," she told the Daily News.
For many undocumented immigrants such as Im, obtaining higher education is nearly an impossible goal. While high school education is accessible and free to all immigrant students, thanks to a1982 Supreme Court decision, college tuition has increased to the point that many cannot attend without financial aid. Last year alone, tuition at the City University of New York increased by 25 percent to more than $4,000.
Advocates said that 50,000 to 65,000 graduates of American high schools each year are children of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years or longer.
"We want to make sure these students are able to contribute and use their potential," Anna Maria Archila of the Latin American Integration Center in Woodside told Newsday.
A federal bill aims to help these students. Last month the Senate Judiciary Committee approved The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or Dream Act, that would grant conditional legal status to high school graduate who are illegal immigrants but have lived in the United States for at least five years and were younger than 16 at the time of their entry.
To get permanent resident status, the bill would have an illegal immigrant completed two years of military service or two years of college within six years of graduating from high school.
Steven Yun, executive director of the National Koran American Services & Education Consortium Inc. told Newsday that many undocumented immigrants cannot afford college tuition and work in the underground economy.
"I wanted to study computer graphics," said Im, who after a brief enrollment dropped out of college and began working illegally.
Under the proposal, undocumented students could receive a federal loan or work-study grant but they will not be eligible for other federal financial aid.
Advocates believed the Dream Act, with 40 co-sponsors in the Senate, stands a chance of passing in an election year "[Politicians] will want to 'give' something to the immigrant community for their votes," said Minerva Moya of New York Immigration Coalition.
Critics argue that the bill is another example of pandering. "This bill is a crass political calculation aimed at selling amnesty disguised s as an educative initiative," Dain Stein of the Federal for American Immigration Reform, an organization promoting stricter immigration policies, told PBS.
The US House of Representative is also considering a similar bill, the Student Adjustment Act, but it would grant legal status to students enrolled in seventh grade or above.
Regardless of the outcome of these bills, like many undocumented immigrants before her, Im plans to stay in New York city for a long time even if it means that her dream will never come true.
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.
After the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001, New Yorkers of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent endured a level of discrimination that only now is coming to light:
"I got fired,” one said, “and, before that, my boss used to call me Osama Bin Laden."
Of almost a thousand New Yorkers surveyed by the City Commission on Human Rights, some 69 percent said they felt subjected to discrimination or harassment due to their ethnicity. Only 17 percent of these people sought help from a government or community agency to help deal with the incidents. According to a recently-released report of the survey results, most were either fearful of making a report, convinced that nothing would be done about it, did not know where to go to file a complaint, or simply felt that the incident was not worth reporting.
The survey was conducted between October of 2002 and April of 2003. "Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, we knew people were afraid to come forward," said Commissioner Patricia L. Gatling, "so we went into these communities and asked if their lives had changed since 9/11 and how."
The largest group of incidents, 37 percent, consisted of bias-related harassment, primarily verbal but also menacing, threats, and physical assault. "Several people were spat upon and a number of women stated that they had their hijabs pulled off," the report said. "Others described their neighbors putting garbage in front of their doors and damaging cars by scratching or burning them, breaking windows or slashing tires. One person was assaulted on a train for reading an Arabic newspaper."
The study found that 26 percent experienced employment discrimination, including being told not to wear traditional headdresses to work. A "large number" encountered difficulties looking for work. Some were harassed on the job by employers, others by customers.
One-quarter of the respondents reported incidents at public accommodations, including from teachers and administrators at schools. And 11 percent experienced housing discrimination, including landlords who openly said they wouldn't rent to them "because you are a Muslim." One landlord locked a Muslim tenant out, put all his belongings on the street, and would not accept rent. Some just were subjected to a reduction in services.
The bias was spread out amongst the boroughs, with most of it taking place right where the respondents live and work. Some people who can "pass" as non-Middle Eastern hear "people you thought were cool, reasonable, and sane exposed for their racism and ignorance," making comments about "others" right in front of them.
The picture isn't entirely bleak. A Jordanian man said that when another customer in a Manhattan cafĂ© was harassing him, the owner asked the perpetrator to leave. "It was in the night and all the people around us in the place, Americans and other ethnicities, acted against the intruder and asked him to leave and I believe this is the best response that I can imagine." And a Muslim mother sounded a note of defiance: "People look at you like you are a terrorist, but let them look because I know who I am. They are the ones with the problem."
In terms of solutions, the commission report notes that the agency could have investigated many of the incidents recounted in the surveys, but that formal complaints were not made. In the course of disseminating the surveys, the commission worked to educate the affected communities about the Human Rights Law and its protections. And working on the project created many new connections between the agency and these communities.
The Commission on Human Rights concluded the report with five recommendations, saying it "encourages the following for government agencies and community organizations:"
1) a climate of tolerance and respect in the city;
2) interfaith and community integration through activities that involve all members of the community;
3) participation of people from the Muslim, South Asian, and Arab communities in civic and political activities (e.g., police councils, block associations, school leadership teams);
4) media campaigns to promote understanding and discourage discriminatory behaviors;
and 5) the entrance of South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims into public service positions (e.g., police and fire fighting).
Copies of the full report are available by calling the 311 Citizen Service Center.
The 2000 census found 71,000 Arabs and 216,000 South Asians living in the five boroughs.
Hearing On Domestic Partners Bill for City Contractors
The biggest civil rights debate in the City Council this year will come on November 13 when the first public hearing will be held on Intro 271, the Equal Benefits Bill, before Councilmember Robert Jackson's contracts committee. This legislation, sponsored by 36 council members (In PDF Format) but opposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would require those with city contracts of more than $100,000 to offer the domestic partners of their employees the same benefits that they offer the spouses of their workers. While there has been little public notice of this bill, it is bound to incite controversy, especially when it comes to religiously affiliated contractors.
The Salvation Army has indicated that it is likely to give up its contracts rather than comply with a law that they say would make them compromise their disapproval of gay relationships. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York, historically a voice against lesbian and gay rights in the city, has not indicated how it will deal with the pending legislation, though the San Francisco Archdiocese found a way to comply with the 1997 law out there. The Episcopal Diocese of New York is part of an 80-group coalition seeking to pass the legislation.
Proponents of the bill say that those receiving city funds to perform public services must treat all of their employees fairly, including people in domestic partnerships. Some contractors who do not yet offer domestic partner benefits said that the bill's passage would help compel more insurance carriers to offer policies that include domestic partners. California's outgoing Governor Gray Davis just signed the first statewide equal benefits bill in the nation, another development that may boost the prospects of the New York City bill.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM..
At the end of a long month of bias-based violence on Staten Island (for details, click on "Links In the News"), the City Commission on Human Rights on September 24 opened up its first permanent office on the island in the commission's 48-year history. The office was long-planned, says Human Rights Commissioner Pat Gatling. But the Bloomberg administration is clearly concerned. New York City mayoralties have been made and unmade by responses to bias violence.
In the summer of 1989, when Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, visited the mostly white Bensonhurst neighborhood in the borough, a mob of white youth killed him. That incident marked the end of the re-election bid of three-term Mayor Ed Koch, who had often been viewed as insensitive in racial matters. It also catapulted Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins into City Hall, the first African American to be mayor.
Just one year later, black New Yorkers rioted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after a car in a Hasidic motorcade sped through a red light and killed 7-year old Gavin Cato. Shouts of "Kill the Jew" went up and Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year old Australian rabbinical student, died from stab wounds inflicted by Lemrick Nelson in a case that was only recently resolved in the courts. The fact that it was not resolved in 1993 when Dinkins ran for re-election and Governor Mario Cuomo released a critical report on the matter during the campaign, contributed to Dinkins's narrow loss to Rudy Giuliani, who had been quite vocal in accusing the mayor of holding police back during the riots.
The first incident this past month occurred in a playground late at night Labor Day in Eltingville on Staten Island, when a mob of some 17 white men and women reportedly confronted an 18-year old black woman named Rachel Carter visiting from New Jersey. They uttered racial slurs and told her she didn't belong in the neighborhood. Then they attacked her and her five companions (who were white, black and Latino), using a sickle and a broken bottle --ugly stuff made worse because the police from the 122nd Precinct tried to discourage the victims from filing complaints. Eleven arrests have been made so far in the Labor Day attack.
Two weeks later, there were nine bias incidents citywide reported on a single weekend, including several on Staten Island, such as a black man accosted by a white mob in a Staten Island deli and a black man shooting at white teens. The cycle of bias violence continued on Staten Island a week after that, when one of the alleged perpetrators in the Labor Day attack was himself assaulted by three Latino men in what law enforcement officers reportedly described as a "retaliatory assault." All in all, in the month after Labor Day, there were a dozen suspected bias incidents on Staten Island alone. Some newspapers began painting Staten Island as a hotbed of bigotry.
None of these incidents are as incendiary as the bias murders of Yusef Hawkins and Yankel Rosenbaum. But the administration is careful to show their concern. At the opening of the human rights office on Staten Island, Commissioner Gatling said, "Mayor Bloomberg and the commission are committed to using all of our resources to ensure that the people of this city do not become hostages to prejudice. This new office will be used to educate, mediate, and enforce the strongest anti-bias laws in the country. Our message is a simple one: Discrimination will not be tolerated in our city." One action already taken is the disciplining of three police officers in connection with the handling of Rachel Carter's Labor Day complaint.
But it's not just individual police officers who are being criticized for their failure to take such civil rights violations seriously. The commission itself is under attack from the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York for not fulfilling its responsibility to enforce the city's human rights law. In a scathing report, attorney Craig Gurian, director of the non-profit center, said that the commission "had eliminated a decades-long backlog of cases in part by a newfound determination to do so, and in part by what the report refers to as 'the Big Case Dump.'" The report charges that the commission found no probable cause against discriminators in more than 98 percent of cases, leveled civil penalties just once, conducted only two trials, almost always failed to interview those accused of discrimination, and "failed to understand and apply basic principles of discrimination law."
Commissioner Gatling responded in the Times that the report "demonstrates a lack of understanding of the commission's objectives and practical application of the city's Human Rights Law," whatever that means. (She didn't elaborate.)
For all the criticism, the mayor has insisted that Staten Island is getting an unfair rap - that the incidents of bias have actually decreased by 25 percent on the island. Of course, these are the official statistics, based on people actually filing complaints - which, as evident from the police reaction to the Labor Day incident, is not always encouraged. But in a way, the mayor surely has a point in asking that Staten Island not be singled out. The truth is, bias violence is not restricted to one part of the city, nor targeted just at one group.
The New York City Gay and Lesbian Project has documented a 52 percent rise in attacks on people who either are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. A recent weekend saw three reported incidents, including six men beating a man after he exited a subway stop in Chelsea.
Clarence Patton of the Anti-Violence Project attributed the rise in anti-gay incidents to the massive increase in the visibility of gay people in the news and on TV entertainment shows, contributing to a backlash. He also cited the downturn in the economy and tensions over the war with Iraq.
Commissioner Gatling is also conscious of these factors. The main perpetrators of bias violence, she says, are young people 17 to 22 years old for whom "the economy looks bleak" and for whom there are fewer after-school options in the economic downturn. But even while acknowledging these factors in play, she said that New York is experiencing less bias violence than cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. "We don't have it like they do," she said.
Even while playing down the dimensions of the problem on Staten Island, Gatling said she has spoken to the superintendent of schools there about stepping up conflict resolution and tolerance programs, some of them offered by the commission itself. "I'm a big proponent of peer mediation," she said.
The commission and its critic, the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, do agree on testing neighborhood tolerance in at least one concrete way. They are both sending out testers to pose as people looking for a job or a home, to see if local real estate agents and employers treat all comers equally. Most often, a white tester and a black tester who pose as similar applicants (same educational level or same income level) approach the same employer or real estate agent at different times to see if they receive the same treatment. One finding so far: In Howard Beach, both testers were treated the same. This might be surprising to those who see the Queens neighborhood as a bastion of bigotry because of past incidents, most notoriously in 1986 when a gang of white youths attacked three black men, killing one of them.
Mayors and mediators, boosters and borough presidents like to say that New York, which is probably still the most diverse city on earth, is a largely successful experiment in peaceful coexistence. One question provoked by the latest incidents is whether New Yorkers get along as well as we do only as long as all members of each group stay in their own neighborhoods. This is a city that, as Gotham Gazette's demographics columnist Andrew Beveridge has pointed out, "remains among the most segregated areas of the United States" - or, as one observer famously said, the only place New York is integrated is on the subway.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.
You are an employer in the city and you want to follow the law. You know that it is illegal to employ anyone not authorized to work in the United States; that is why they are called "illegal aliens." So, you put a "citizens only" restriction in your help wanted ad.
If you did that, you yourself would be breaking the law.
It is illegal in New York City to discriminate on the basis of national origin or citizenship status, and, while employers are required to verify that employees are authorized to work in the U.S., it is also illegal to so overdo the verification process that it effectively discriminates against the applicant.
The issue of non-citizen employment is clearly a minefield for employers, which is why the City Commission on Human Rights recently held a forum for employers entitled "Preventing Immigration-Related Employment Discrimination."
Many industries in New York employ more non-citizen immigrants than American citizens. This is certainly true of hotels. But other affected employers include those in the car rental business, home cleaning services, city agencies, YMCA, tour bus companies, housing complexes, banks, credit unions, nursing homes, hospitals, and a television station. All of these showed up for the forum.
"We're trying to make them aware of the law," said Betsy Herzog of the commission. "Even with immigrant employers, they don't always know the law. The paperwork is complicated."
Since 1986, all employees have been required to fill out I-9 forms for Employment Eligibility Verification. It lists 10 documents, such as a U.S. passport or Unexpired Employment Authorization Card that on their own establish identity and employment eligibility. Problems arise when an employer insists on one form of verification to the exclusion of others or insists on multiple documents when one alone will do.
Rachel Pomerantz, a law enforcement attorney with the commission, said, "The more you know as an employer, the less likely you are to have someone sue you for employment discrimination." She noted that the city human rights law covers more than the federal law does.
Pomerantz told the employers that it is never a good experience to have a complaint filed against you, even if there is no finding of discrimination, and said that the commission will "try to intervene before the complaint is filed," because sometimes "it is a matter of hurt feelings and can be resolved with a call." She noted that the city's human rights law and rules of practice for administrative hearings can be read online. She warned employers who have a complaint filed against them not to compound the problem by retaliating against the aggrieved employee. "We're here as a resource," she said, and urged them to call the Law Enforcement Bureau at 212-306-7450 when a question arises.
Common complaints from immigrants include discrimination based on their accents, unless it would interfere with their ability to do a particular job. "Exceptions are narrow," she said. ""You can't refuse to hire someone because you don't think that your customers will like the accent." It is also illegal to enforce English-only rules in a workplace during breaks and lunch. "There has to be a job-related necessity," she said.
Similarly, dress codes cannot discriminate against a "foreign look," such as wearing a sari, unless there are safety concerns. "You can have a uniform, but everyone has to wear it," she said.
Anthony Archeval, senior trial attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices, offers a video for employers, "Going Too Far," and promises to educate employee and employer groups who contact them at 1-800-255-7688 (or 1-800-237-2375 for the hearing impaired). In his experience, discrimination is not a result of evil intent, "but of a misunderstanding of the law."
The Department of Justice also has a Telephone Intervention System "for willing employers and workers, to avoid misunderstanding," and publishes a guide called "Look at the Facts, Not at the Faces: Your Guide to Fair Employment."
To have the Commission on Human Rights schedule a workshop on immigration issues for your group or workplace, call 311. The workshops are available in a wide variety of languages and have already been conducted in Spanish, Creole, Russian, Mandarin, African dialects, and, of course, English.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (57 on Time-Warner; 109 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.
A New York City high school for gay students is making front-page news. The New York Post claimed an exclusive on its front page July 28, trumpeting, "GAY HIGH: New City School A First" about the Harvey Milk High School that the paper said is "devoted exclusively to gay kids." But the school, which is named after a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors (its city council) who was killed by a political rival, was actually founded in 1985 as a Board of Education program for clients of the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth (since renamed the Hetrick-Martin Institute) It is the plan to expand the school from 50 to 170 students and its reclassification as a stand-alone high school that has attracted tabloid news interest and attacks from conservatives.
But it is also receiving scrutiny from civil libertarians, who frame the debate as a matter of civil liberties - for the non-gay students that they fear might be excluded from the school.
The debate comes at the same time that both the Pope and the president have weighed in on same-sex marriage, in an attempt to re-frame that debate from an issue of civil rights for gay people to one they might call moral rights for non-gay people: While "it's very important for our society to respect each individual," President Bush said, "on the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on issues such as marriage."
This is happening now because, thanks to recent events such as the Supreme Court ruling overturning state sodomy laws and the approval of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church, gay rights is looking like an increasingly accepted concept, and, thanks to changing attitudes worldwide, gay marriage is looking like an impending reality: Holland, Belgium, and parts of Canada have already opened marriage to gay couples, with Massachusetts expected to follow any day now by court decree.
With so much gay news around, it was probably hard for the Post to resist entering into the fray by claiming an exclusive. But the Hetrick-Martin Institute sent out a press release about the expansion of the Harvey Milk school way back in June 2002 after the Board of Education approved the $3.2 million necessary to renovate the space for the school and fund its operations. Since then, reporters have covered these plans on occasion, including me.
I actually worked for Hetrick-Martin myself from 1986 to 1995 as its director of education. The institute was one of the first agencies anywhere to recognize that HIV, with what we learned had an incubation period of about a decade, was a major threat to teenagers who could pick up the virus without developing symptoms until well into their 20s. Much of my job was to go out into mainstream schools educating young people and youth service providers about AIDS, but I also sometimes educated students from Harvey Milk.
The Harvey Milk High School program started under a Board of Education policy of making an onsite teacher available to any social service agency that had 20 or more young people who were not attending school. So, the board didn't vote to create a "gay school," it just did not discriminate against an agency whose clients were mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered - many of whom had been harassed and hounded into dropping out of school.
As much as the place made news from the beginning, with news camera crews chasing students down the block after school, so also from the beginning, a civil rights argument was used against it. Many educators, including United Federation of Teachers President Sandy Feldman, expressed reservations about what looked like a segregated learning environment. (She has since come around to seeing the need for the school.) Norman Siegel, then director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was ready to try to stop the program from going forward on civil liberties grounds, but was dissuaded from doing so.
"I was told that it was for kids who had dropped out and that the program would help reintegrate them into mainstream schools," Siegel says.
Almost two decades later, Siegel, who is now director of the Freedom Legal Defense and Education Project, says that almost never happened, and he believes the school should be investigated for possible violations of the law, including a 2002 state law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. "If the parent of a non-gay student is turned down for the school, I would bring a complaint," he says. (There have in fact been non-gay students in the school, including a girl whose mother was lesbian; the girl had been subject to harassment in her previous school.) Siegel has a strong record of support for lesbian and gay rights, but says that when gay students are being bullied, "don't take the victim out of the school, take the bully out.
"We seem to be throwing in the towel on integration, on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education," Siegel says. "The United States Supreme Court said that separate is inherently unequal. Schools that are all-black, all-female, or all-gay/lesbian offend that doctrine."
He is not alone in holding these views. "The city should never suggest that the solution to problems of discrimination and persecution of students who are perceived as different is to segregate them from the rest of the population," the New York Times wrote in a recent editorial about the Harvey Milk School. "The needs of gay teenagers can best be served by making sure that they, like all New York students, are able to attend regular public high schools in safety, free from bullying." In an Op-Ed in the same newspaper, a gay student also argued for mainstreaming, citing his own experiences.
Much the same arguments were used by the National Organization for Women against a school segregated by gender. In response to the establishment of an all-girls public school in East Harlem in 1997, NOW-New York City president Anne Conners said at the time, "While it's true that girls are discriminated against in school, this is a Band-Aid approach to educational equity. What we need is systemic change and the establishment of sex equity in all schools through such practical measures as increased funding for girls' sports and improved, mandatory teacher training."
There are several levels of irony in this debate, one of which is that it allows long-time opponents of gay rights to couch their arguments as one of compassion or civil liberties. For example, State Senator Ruben Diaz has also threatened legal action against the Harvey Milk School. "Instead of separating homosexual students," he told the Post, "schools should teach tolerance." Some may suspect Diaz's devotion to tolerance, since he once tried to block the Gay Games sports festival from taking place in New York because, he said, it might cause the spread of AIDS.
More ironic still: For all those years that Harvey Milk was a one-room schoolhouse helping a handful of students to complete their high school education, the Hetrick-Martin Institute was also part of the Education Coalition on Lesbian and Gay Youth, which was lobbying the school chancellor and Board of Education to make mainstream schools safe for lesbian and gay students. While chancellors from Nathan Quinones to Harold Levy agreed to limited staff training (mostly for guidance counselors), each resisted the kind of programming instituted by school systems in Los Angeles and San Francisco where each school designates a point person on gay issues who conducts training and is available to resolve conflicts.
Chancellor Joseph Fernandez was famous for pushing through an explicit HIV/AIDS education program in 1991, complete with condom availability (a program that has not been repealed but often goes unimplemented) and for trying to discipline School District 24 in Queens for resolutely refusing even to mention gay issues despite the mandates of the board's policy on multicultural education, which then included sexual orientation as a category. (The Board of Education later rescinded this at the behest of Mayor Rudy Giuliani). The myth at the time was that Fernandez was forcing schools to use the controversial second grade teacher guide, "Children of the Rainbow," which included a section on families headed by gay or lesbian parents among other family constellations. Fernandez in fact had only insisted that each district in its own way comply with policy by dealing with gay issues in some form by the sixth grade. The misunderstandings about Fernandez's position, fueled by the tabloid press, contributed to the board's refusal to renew his contract in 1993.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg is defending the Harvey Milk School, saying at a news conference on July 28, "Some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools," insisting that the school "sort of solves that problem. It gets them an education without having to worry."
But even with an expansion of Harvey Milk to 100 and later 170 students, it is clear that, in a system with more than a million students, most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth will remain in mainstream schools. Debra Smock, administrator of the Harvey Milk School, said, "In a perfect world, there wouldn't be a need for Harvey Milk School." But the question is whether this school will be used as an excuse to abandon efforts to change the anti-gay atmosphere in the vast majority of mainstream schools.
There is school anti-bullying legislation still pending in Albany and in City Hall, described in my civil rights column in May. But these are just the kinds of moves opposed by the most vigorous opponents of the Harvey Milk School.
Some school systems elsewhere, including in small Midwestern towns, have instituted programming for gay students in response to successful civil rights lawsuits brought by gay young people who were repeatedly harassed and beaten in school while the administration looked the other way. No such lawsuit has been brought in New York, but that is what it might take to get the Department of Education to do more than create the safety valve of a Harvey Milk School.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, and co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.
More than 40 years ago Edward Culvert boarded a bus bound for the South in an effort to test President John F. Kennedy's commitment to civil rights. The mass action, part of the historic Freedom Rides of the 1960s, helped popularize the civil rights movement and laid the foundation for the many grass roots movements that define that period in American history. "If it worked once, why not repeat the process?" asked Culvert, now a professor of Black Studies at Lehman College.
Supporters of immigrant-rights are hoping to achieve similar results in the forthcoming Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, an event inspired by the Freedom Rides that will bring thousands of advocates from across the nation to New York in an effort to draw attention to immigrants' rights and rally support for a new road map to U.S. citizenship.
The gathering, which is scheduled to take place on October 4 in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, will mark the end of a journey from nine cities, with caravans expected to depart from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Boston, Chicago Las Vegas and Minneapolis.
The riders expect to publicize the plight of immigrant workers through a number of events planned along the way, and will meet with Congressional representatives in Washington D.C. before arriving here. "The first Freedom Rides publicized something people really didn't know about," said Culvert. "This will do the same, but on an even larger scale."
Organizers, including the AFL-CIO and hundreds of faith-based organizations, are also hoping that the event will put the issue of immigrant workers' rights back on the national agenda as the 2004 presidential campaigns commence. Integrating the nation's estimated 11 to 18 million undocumented workers was a top priority in Washington throughout the early months of President George W. Bush's term, but largely fell away following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
" Many civil rights leaders are looking at the plight of immigrant workers in the same way they looked at the plight of African Americans and other minorities in the 1960s," said Brian McLaughlin, New York Assemblyman and president of the Central Labor Council who serves as the chairman of Freedom Ride. "September 11 accelerated concern over many of the civil rights and civil liberties for immigrants that are now jeopardized by the Homeland Security Act," said McLaughlin.
According to McLaughlin, Freedom Ride will focus on three demands:
â€˘ Legalization for all immigrant workers,
â€˘ The right of immigrant workers to reunite with their families
â€˘ Protection of immigrants in the workplace.
"Immigrants today are harassed in their communities, exploited at their job sites, and separated from their families," said McLaughlin.
The transfer of what was once the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security and tough new immigration laws have further complicated the process of naturalization for undocumented workers, also known as illegal aliens. Indefinitely long waits and the threat of deportation often discourage immigrants from pursuing the legal path to citizenship, and according to Freedom Ride organizers, immigrants who endure the long road to citizenship sometimes spend years separated from their families.
Freedom Ride isn't the first collaboration between labor and immigration groups. A 1992 strike that pitted California drywallers -- mostly Mexican laborers -- against construction contractors, halted the construction of interior walls from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara for nearly a year. After blockading freeways and work sites with car caravans, drywallers gained important union contracts for immigrant workers.
Opponents of illegal immigration claim that naturalization services and civil rights should be reserved for immigrants who follow the proper legal channels, and place emphasis on the distinction between those immigrants who enter the country legally and those who don't. "Who would be against immigrant rights?" asked James M. Staudenraus, Eastern Field Coordinator for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "There are enormous differences between the rights of a legal immigrant, who is here with our country's permission, and people who are here in violation of federal immigration law."
Dave Rey, associate director of FAIR, called the equation of civil rights with the rights of immigrant workers "ludicrous". "Civil rights have nothing to do with the opening up of our borders," he said. "They are riding on the coattails of a completely different movement."
Many of the original Freedom Riders, however, disagree. "We may have come over on different ships but we're all in the same damn boat now," longtime civil rights leader Rev. Richard Lowery told the Seattle Post Intelligencer.
Lehman University's Culvert said that the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride would likely draw even more support than the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement.
"The second Freedom Ride, I think, will receive more attention than the first one, because changes in technology make it possible to reach a much wider audience," said Culvert. "The world is not as big as it used to be."
Robert Nolan is online editor of the Foreign Policy Association .
Youth Summer Jobs
Every year, advocates for youth in the city must go begging for money to support the Summer Youth Employment Program. After several rallies this year in Albany and at City Hall, as well as constant pressure from community groups like the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition and United Neighborhood Houses who together sponsor the Campaign for Summer Jobs, Governor George Pataki agreed in mid-June to release $25 million from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding to be used for summer jobs for teens.
Sixty percent ($15 million) of that sum would go to New York City's Summer Youth Employment Program and counties around the state would receive the rest. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced the governor's decision, crediting the state legislature, advocacy groups, and the teens that showed up for the rallies. Everyone was pleased.
And then something went wrong.
The governor's bill allocating the TANF money had other items attached to it that didn't go over with the legislature, so it was sent back and another bill was submitted. This one was approved by the senate, but by then the assembly had recessed for the summer, and the bill never passed. Both sides are blaming the other, but it is the teenagers who will suffer the consequences.
"It is possible that the state may fritter away $25 million" said Susan Stamler from United Neighborhood Houses of New York. "The governor could step in and pay for it out of the general funds and get the money back in the fall." That is the only way to save the situation, according to Stamler. If the governor doesn't act, the money disappears.
Most affected by the loss of these jobs would be younger teens, explained Stamler. "Eighteen- and nineteen-year olds can still go to places like McDonald's and get a job. But the fourteen-year old kids won't be able to do that. They will be shut out of the job market this summer."
What would really satisfy Stamler and the Campaign for Summer Jobs is not just action to preserve the money for this summer and the 13,000 jobs for NYC teens that it represents -- although she is hoping the governor will come through -- but what she and other advocates for youth summer employment are really looking for is a permanent stand-alone program that would fund 40,000 summer jobs for NYC adolescents every year without the need to scrap for last minute deals and handouts.
Funding for the city's Summer Youth Employment Program comes from various sources this year: $16.2 million from the city (initially the mayor budgeted $6.2 million and then added an additional $10 million), $11 million from the federal Workforce Investment Act (participating youth must be enrolled in the program year-round), and the last minute and elusive $15 million from the state.
If all of the money is released and contractors are able to act swiftly to fill the positions, 40,000 New York City kids, ages 14-19, will be employed at minimum wage jobs this summer for a seven week period from June 30th to August 15th, giving them the opportunity to earn a paycheck, while gaining work experience and learning new skills.
The 2003 KIDS COUNT Data Book was released in June by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and New York has improved in seven out of ten indicators of child well-being, including reduced infant and child mortality rates, adolescent death rates (cut in half), teen birth rates, and a decreasing number of children without health insurance (although ten percent of children in the state still do not have health insurance). New York also scored better than the national average in all of these categories as well as in our immunization rate for children under two years of age.
Child well-being in New York declined, however, in three major areas: low birth weight babies are on the rise, as is the teen high school drop-out rate, and the percentage of children living in poverty is greater here than it was in 1990. In the latter category, New York is also higher than the country as a whole for children living in extreme poverty (family income below 50 percent of poverty level), ranking 43 (with 1 being the best). We ranked 47 out of 50 for children living in female-headed households and the median income for all New York families with children is lower than the U. S. average.
New York State is failing in two out of four categories for reducing the hardships of poverty: 41 percent of households eligible for food stamps are not receiving them (in the city that number is 51 percent), and almost 70 percent of low income households are paying more than one-third of their income for housing.
Our overall rating compared to the other 50 states is 27, with 1 being the best (Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, New Jersey, and Iowa hold the top five slots for overall child well-being).
Asian-American Children and Poverty
Nearly one in four Asian-American children (24 percent) live in poverty in New York City. This is higher than the average poverty rate for all children across the country (17 percent), as well as higher than the average for all Asian American children nationally (14 percent). Based on an analysis of new census data by the Asian American Federation of New York (AAFNY), this news may finally dash the misconception that all Asian American families are affluent and self-sufficient.
Worst hit by poverty are Vietnamese (40 percent), Bangladeshi (39 percent) and Pakistani children (34 percent), followed by Chinese (27 percent) and Indian children (23 percent). By borough, Asian-American families living in Brooklyn are the hardest hit (34 percent), followed by Manhattan (30 percent), and the Bronx (29 percent); Queens fares the best (18 percent). By neighborhood, Manhattan's Chinatown has an alarming 40 percent poverty rate for its children.
City services often underserve impoverished Asian-American families, according to Asian American Federation of New York, and there is a great need for programs that will bridge language and cultural barriers, stimulate employment, and offer child care.
June was, appropriately enough, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. And while it was the 34th such celebration in New York City commemorating the Stonewall Riots against police harassment in 1969, the community has arguably never had more to celebrate.
On June 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Texas "homosexual conduct" law was unconstitutional and overturned the court's 1986 Bowers decision that gave the states the rights to ban consensual adult sexual activity. Earlier in the month, the Ontario high court ruled-effective immediately-that same-sex couples were entitled to marry. The Canadian government decided not to appeal the decision and proposed legislation to equalize marriage rights across the nation.
While these two enormous lesbian and gay rights advances were national and international in scope, they were both connected to advocates who live here in New York. And while New York has made some strides of its own in the 34 years since Stonewall, the sweeping nature of these advances hold the very real prospect of completing the long struggle of gay people toward legal equality here.
The lead attorney in for the plaintiffs in the United States Supreme Court case, Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, was Ruth Harlow of the New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Lambda and the American Civil Liberties Union had chipped away at many state sodomy statutes over the years, including helping to overturn New York's sodomy law in 1980, but those decisions were based on state constitutions, leaving 13 states with sodomy laws, most in the deep South.
It was Kevin Cathcart, the longtime executive director of Lambda, who decided that it was time to bring suit in federal court to challenge the Texas law in an effort to overturn the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, a 5-4 opinion that held that gay claims to privacy in sexual relations were "facetious, at best." Winning would mean invalidating all the remaining sodomy laws and establishing a foundation in federal law to equal rights for gay people.
Cathcart's judgment paid off in spades with Justice Anthony Kennedy's sweeping decision that we saw announced across the cover of the New York Times the next day in a rare banner headline. (The more conservative New York Post tried to bury the story on page 26.) Professor Arthur Leonard of New York Law School called it "a Magna Carta for gay Americans," in the Gay City News.
Of course, not everyone was thrilled with the decision. Religious conservatives nationwide were said to be "white hot" with fury over the court's move. But local religious conservatives were not nearly so outspoken. Even the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which often speaks out against gay rights measures that it feels will infringe on Catholic rights, did not quibble with decriminalizing private consensual sexual behavior. But their president, William Donahue, told the Daily News, "What happens between two consenting adults behind closed doors is their own business. But it would be a mistake for [gays] to hyperventilate about their next victory."
Justice Antonin Scalia did come close to hyperventilation about the court's majority opinion. In an angry dissent, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, he said, "What justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising the 'liberty projected by the constitution'?"
Which brings us to the revolution in the Canadian marriage laws. Ontario, and soon the whole nation if Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has his way, is the first place that American same-sex couples can go to get legally married. Holland, which equalized the marriage laws in 2000, and Belgium which just did this past month, have residency requirements. Some gay Americans have already gone just across the border to marry. A forum was scheduled July 2 at 7 PM at New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center (208 West 13th Street in Manhattan) to guide New Yorkers in the Canadian process.
New York gay couples have been trying to get the City Clerk to issue them marriage licenses since the early 1970s when the Gay Activists Alliance would stage sit-ins at the Marriage Bureau. But the issue did not accelerate in the world's consciousness until 1996 when New York's Evan Wolfson, then an attorney for Lambda Legal, won the right for two Hawaiian gay couples to marry. That lower court victory was eventually stopped by a referendum in Hawaii, but it led to the Congress enacting the Defense of Marriage Act to ban federal recognition of same-sex marriages and gave the states the right to ban recognition of legal same-sex marriages performed in other states. Thirty-seven states have done so, though no state has recognized same sex marriages. (Vermont has come closest with a civil union law that gives Vermont gay couples the rights of married couples. Eight-five percent of those joined under the law in Vermont are from out of state. They return to their states having to fight for the legitimacy of their relationships.)
New York State is one of thirteen states that has not enacted a ban on the recognition of same-sex marriages. While the state does not have a gender-specific marriage law, the Department of Health interpreted it to limit marriage to a man and a woman. But since New York and every other state have always recognized those married in Canada, it is an open question as to how same-sex couples married in Canada will fare here. There is legislation pending in Albany that would open marriage to gay couples and another bill that would close it.
New York has a legal tradition of recognizing the marriages of couples from elsewhere who were married in a way that New York itself does not perform, such as common law marriages. In a case involving St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, a state judge has allowed a man who had obtained a civil union in Vermont the right to sue over the alleged wrongful death of his spouse (the word used in the Vermont law).
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has yet to weigh in on how same-sex couples married in Canada should be regarded legally in New York. These couples will be in a bind until the legal issues are resolved. They may incur liability if they represent themselves as married and if they don't. A period of mess and uncertainly is ahead of them, including the fact that they can only divorce if they live in Canada for a year (unless a New York court chooses to dissolve their marriages.)
New York City enacted a law last year recognizing domestic partnerships, civil unions, and same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but that has been interpreted to mean that these couples do not have to register as domestic partners here in the city to get the benefits of domestic partnership.
The Supreme Court's ruling in the Texas case, acknowledging the "liberty" rights of gay people, that has given heart to same-sex marriage advocates, even though the majority made clear that it wasn't opening marriage to gay couples. Alan Van Capelle, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the New York gay lobby group, told me for Gay City News that the decision "changes the entire landscape in New York. It refocuses us on the marriage issue" which he said "isn't about 'if' but about 'when.'" Only one week before in the wake of the Canada developments, Van Capelle was hedging about the viability of same-sex marriage in New York. But more aggressive groups like Marriage Equality/New York have been pushing it for five years now.
Attorney Evan Wolfson now heads a national group called Freedom to Marry, based in New York, which is aiding state organizations fighting for equal marriage rights. The breakthrough in the United States may come as early as this month in neighboring Massachusetts where gay plaintiffs await the ruling of the state's high court. And a similar New Jersey case, being argued by Lambda, is going through the legal preliminaries there.
While the marriage issue is unresolved in New York, the state did get rid of one of the last vestiges of anti-gay language in its laws last month by dropping the terms "sodomy" and "deviant sexual intercourse" in its rape laws. These terms were not just deemed to be archaic and anti-gay, but stigmatizing for the rape survivor.
And all is not finished in New York City by any means as far as gay advocates are concerned. Speaker Gifford Miller held a press conference in late June to call upon the mayor and governor to get the quasi independent state/city authorities to provide the same kind of domestic partner benefits that are afforded to other city and state employees.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.