New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) endorsed 34 candidates for New York State Assembly in 2016 who had a record of voting against the bill known as GENDA — which would prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. The proposed law would specifically protect transgender people by adding gender identity to the list of identities protected under human rights law and hate crimes law. This year, 31 Assemblymembers endorsed by NYSUT voted against GENDA. In addition, NYSUT endorsed Jim Tedisco for the 46th New York Senate District, who, as an Assembly member, voted against GENDA multiple times. Tedisco was endorsed over Chad Putman, an openly gay progressive Democrat. With endorsements come donations from NYSUT’s non-partisan political action fund, VOTE/COPE, which donated $11,000 to Tedisco For Senate in 2016, and none to Putman.
This record of endorsements is notable, as NYSUT has positioned itself as one of the most important advocates for LGBTQ rights after the closure of Empire State Pride Agenda in 2015. Pride Agenda closed after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, citing a fulfillment of its central mission. The actual LGBTQ agenda stretches far beyond marriage equality, of course — legislating increased protection for the transgender community in particular is still on the to-do list for many advocates.
Certain candidates endorsed by NYSUT are not just passive opponents of GENDA — several have vociferously opposed GENDA on the Assembly floor. During debate on GENDA on the floor of the Assembly, Dean Murray, a Republican Assemblymember from Suffolk County who was endorsed by NYSUT, read out a list of men who had been accused of going into the women’s bathroom under the pretense of being transgender, in order to spy on women in a compromised state. “This opens up the question of where are the safeguards? Will this be abused?” Murray asked the Assembly, who went on to ask whether a man who fraudulently identifies as a woman would be able to qualify for the special advantages made available for women and minority owned business owners.
Al Graf, Republican Assemblymember from the 2nd District — also endorsed by NYSUT — was similarly outspoken in opposing GENDA. “A guy — he can look like a biker, right?” said Graf, posing a hypothetical question to GENDA sponsor Richard Gottfried. “He can hop off his Harley Davidson, he can have a patch on his back for the Hell’s Angels, and if he says ‘I identify as a woman’ and he goes into the women’s restroom, and someone tries to tell him to get out, or push him out of the restroom, can they be charged with a crime here?”
Additionally, NYSUT endorsed 18 candidates for the Assembly who voted against the bill that would make engaging in conversion therapy professional misconduct, if the patient was under 18 years of age. (Conversion therapy is the attempt by mental health practitioners to change a patient’s sexual orientation.)
However, despite this record of endorsements, NYSUT also has a strong record of advocating LGBT issues, and has become one of the strongest proponents of GENDA in the state. “In a real way, NYSUT has stepped in and picked up the ball and is running with it, to advance the LGBT agenda,” says Carl Korn, NYSUT’s press secretary.
Melinda Person, NYSUT’s political director and member of NYSUT’s LGBTQ Committee, was also on the board of Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s premiere LGBT advocacy. “I was really disappointed when Pride Agenda closed,” said Person over the phone. “The following year when there was not an Equality and Justice Day—” (the LGBT lobby day that Pride Agenda inaugurated — “NYSUT’s LGBTQ committee got together with other activists around the state and we put together an LGBTQ advocacy day.”
This year’s advocacy day will be held on May 2, and will pull together over 30 organizations from around the state — 400 people are expected to attend, an increase over the 250 who attended last year’s advocacy day. There are three issues that attendees will specifically be lobbying the government about: protecting trans and gender nonconforming individuals through the passage of GENDA — which is top priority, according to Person — ensuring the passage of Parent-Child Security Act, and combatting conversion therapy. NYSUT is providing all of the funding for this lobbying day. “The advocacy that we’re doing to push for GENDA’s passage is unparallelled,” Person told The Alt.
If the advocacy that NYSUT provides on issues surrounding transphobia and homophobia is truly “unparalleled,” how and why were candidates who voted against LGBTQ rights endorsed by NYSUT?
An answer might lie in the way endorsements are carried out by NYSUT. In August, during the annual convention, local union presidents and members of each locals’ political action committees come together to vote on endorsements — the convention makes a recommendation to the NYSUT Board of Directors, who then vote to endorse candidates. An assortment of about 20 of the most important bills in the last two-year cycle are considered — GENDA and other LGBTQ rights legislation have consistently been under consideration. Other factors are considered, like a candidates’ access to members, and the intensity of their advocacy for the issues.
“If someone has a 19-1 positive voting record, and a good relationship with local leaders in their district, and was a forceful advocate for other issues, and the recommendation was to endorse, we would endorse,” said Korn to The Alt. “We’ve really worked hard to pick up the mantle [of LGBT advocacy], but at the same time, we are an educational union. It’s a delicate balancing act.”
NYSUT is hardly the only public union to make conservative political endorsements, though NYSUT is the union that is the most outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights in the state. The Public Employee Federation (PEF) endorsed 30 candidates who went on to vote against GENDA. The Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), an organization that does not devote nearly as many resources to LGBTQ advocacy as NYSUT does, only endorsed 18 candidates who voted against GENDA. All three organizations endorsed Tedisco over Putnam in the 49th Senate District race, seemingly favoring experience over progressivism.
Another answer probably lies in the strong incentive that unions have to ensure that they endorse incumbents. “It’s not about picking the winner, it’s about siding with the majority,” a source knowledgeable about NYSUT’s endorsement process told The Alt on the condition of anonymity. “Are we going to put our members at risk by picking this loser? It’s not black and white that [endorsing the progressive] is the right thing to do.”