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Jonathan Capehart, 35, is The News' deputy editorial page editor. From 1993-2000, Capehart was a member The News' editorial board. While he wrote on myriad local, national and international issues, Capehart's 16-month editorial campaign to save the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem earned him and the board the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. Capehart left The News in July 2000 to become the national affairs columnist at Bloomberg News, then took a leave to serve as a policy adviser to Michael Bloomberg in his successful campaign for mayor of New York City.

Email: jcapehart@

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New twist
in old gay rights debate

The gay community has been abuzz with talk that state Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan) is trying to kill the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. That's right. A champion of gay rights potentially standing in the way of gay rights.

There's even an E-mail making the rounds reading "Stop Tom Duane!" The content of the E-mail may be over the top, but the concern it expresses is right on the money.

Duane's liberal/gay/lesbian constituency has at least one more faction you might not have figured on: the transgendered.

The nondiscrimination legislation has been knocking around Albany for more than 30 years. It would add sexual orientation to the state's human rights law and protect gays from discrimination in employment, housing and education. It is thisclose to becoming law. But the delicate deal devised to ensure its passage could collapse - thanks to Duane.

He should know better. Duane is openly gay. He's even a sponsor of the bill. So what's his deal?

Duane says he's fighting like mad "for inclusive language" that would add transgendered people to those protected by the law. It's estimated that the transgendered - from transsexuals to those who live as the opposite gender to those whose behavior doesn't conform to traditional gender roles - comprise up to 1% of the population, according to Gender Education and Advocacy.

The deal worked out between state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and the Empire State Pride Agenda is that the act would be voted on without amendments when the Senate comes back in special session Tuesday - something Bruno reiterated at a press conference yesterday. It would be the same bill the Assembly passed - as it has every year for the last 10. Gov. Pataki, who has long supported the bill and gently nudged Bruno in the right direction, will sign the bill.

But if Duane is successful in getting the Senate to pass the act with his transgender amendment, the bill would have to go back to the Assembly. And that's when all hell could break loose.

First of all, the Assembly won't be around to sign an amended bill. In addition, socially conservative members and homophobic legislators might seize the opportunity to try to add anti-gay language to the measure - something along the lines of the Defense of Marriage Act that 37 states and the federal government have enacted, which defines marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Not a price worth paying.

Albany could delay the bill further because the addition of transgender is so controversial. While legislators have been educated in gay issues over these past 30 years, there has been no similar enlightenment in Albany on transgender issues. The movement, such as it is, is in its infancy.

And let's be honest: Transgender issues are difficult for most people to understand. Even in Albany - where they have no problem passing complex budget bills with only a few minutes' review - the notion of extending protection to men and women who feel they were born the wrong gender would be hard to grasp.

Duane and his gay constituents already are protected by the city's human rights law. The transgendered, too. The senator's fight puts the protection of gays and lesbians throughout the state at risk.

"I'm not trying to stop SONDA," he said recently. "What have I been in office for? It's been a part of my platform."

But the eleventh-hour amendment could undermine that platform. That's why Duane should put off his transgender activism until after the bill is passed. Untold numbers of gays and lesbians around the state need legal protection. It's long overdue.

Originally published on December 10, 2002

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