Gay Rights Bill Ends
On Bright Note
Focus Now on Renewed Push for Dignity for All Students Bill
In mid December, after ten years
of no action by the State Senate on “SONDA”—the
Sexual Orientation Non-discrimination Act, which I sponsored
and saw passed in the Assembly ten times, the State Senate
finally allowed the bill to come to a vote. The bill passed
and was signed into law later that day by the Governor.
This is a glorious achievement in
New York State history and in the fight for civil rights.
Today equal opportunity and freedom from fear and discrimination
have been secured for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.
Enclaves of bigotry and ignorance have been closed. No longer
will gay or lesbian or bisexual New Yorkers—including students—be
While the State Senate should have
acted long ago, this is still a sweet victory for justice,
equality and civil liberties. We must acknowledge the veterans
of the Stonewall Rebellion and the courageous New Yorkers,
men and women, past and present, who led this crusade for
equality and to end discrimination based on actual or perceived
sexual orientation for all these years. I also recognize
that our work is not done. Discrimination against any group
or individual based on a “what” the
person is, is un-American and unjust.
I commend Speaker Silver for his
unfailing leadership on this bill, Assemblymembers Deborah
Glick and Richard Gottfried for their tireless work, and
the bill’s many other long supporters,
and the late Assemblyman Bill Passannante, who made history
by introducing the first SONDA way back in 1971.
In another recent development, the State Education Department
(SED) agreed to include questions relating to bias harassment
and bullying on the annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).
The YRBS is administered to students across New York State
and is a critical vehicle to assess what risks students are
SED will be including two new questions in the YRBS: one which
asks students if they have been called names, teased, harassed
or attacked either at or on the way to school, and a second
which asks what the student thought the reason was for the
harassment. Students will be able to choose from a list of
possible motivations, including gender, race, disability, sexual
orientation, language, age, economic status, intelligence,
dress, country of origin, religion and height or weight. Students
can choose as many categories as are applicable, and are also
able to specify any other cause not listed.
In September, SED had stated its
intention to not add any questions on bias harassment to
this year’s YRBS despite
assurances to the contrary for over two years. In response
to that announcement, I had several conversations with the
State Education Department to urge reconsideration of the matter.
The Dignity for All Students Coalition along with the Empire
State Pride Agenda and other members of the Coalition held
a press conference on the steps of the SED protesting the decision
and asking the SED to reconsider.
“SED was right to hear the arguments of the experts
and advocates about the pressing need for this data,” said
Pride Agenda’s legislative director, Ross Levi. “The
over 155 member organizations of the statewide Dignity for
All Students Coalition are to be congratulated for their tenacity.
We also commend our elected officials who advocated with SED
for the inclusion of these questions, especially Assemblyman
Steve Sanders who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
The YRBS, a federally funded, state administered survey, contains
core questions created by the federal government designed to
gather data about the safety and health environment for high
school aged youth. States are free to add questions of their
own to gather data on related subjects.
It is my hope that in the new year, we will follow these important
victories with Senate action on the Dignity for All Students
bill which I sponsored in the Assembly and which passed overwhelmingly
in 2002. Dignity would prohibit harassment against all students
in public schools, including harassment based on a person`s
actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnic group,
religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation,
gender, or sex.
All students need a safe, welcoming and affirming environment
in school in order to concentrate on their academic and personal
growth. They should never have to be preoccupied by the threat
or actual occurrence of harassment or discrimination, be it
verbal or physical, either from school employees or fellow
students. The Dignity for All Students Act would promote civility
among students and between students and teachers. It will also
help create an atmosphere where learning is paramount and distractions
to learning are minimized.
Steven Sanders is
chairman of the NYS Assembly’s Committee
on Education. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or phone him at (212) 979-9696.#