The Pride Network sponsored a panel of four local activists and politicians to speak about important gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) legislation in New York. Approximately 40 students attended a two-hour panel last Thursday about the importance of GLBT issues in local and national elections.

The panel discussed many New York legislation bills, including bills pertaining to nondiscrimination, marriage equality and reproductive freedom.

Four local Monroe County GLBT activists spoke about the critical importance of voting and pledging support to causes that students believe in. The panelists were Democratic Minority Leader of the 24th District Harry Bronson, President of the New York Civil Liberties Union Monroe (NYCLU), County Chapter Gary Pudup and transgender activist Pam Barres and community member Pat Martinez.

First, Bronson spoke about the state of GLBT legislation. Since these issues are not addressed on the federal level, it is up to individual states to legislate.

He indicated with dismay that the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act took 31 years to pass. However, according to recent polls, the trend in New York is toward pro-GLBT legislation. He encouraged students to support bills they believed in.

‘Especially being an election year, we want students to be conscious of items up for debate in New York State Senate and how federal laws affect LGBT students,” President of the Pride Network and senior Alexander Papastrat said. ‘It would be reprehensible for us not to offer such an event when our civil rights are currently at stake.”

The discussion turned to the Marriage Equality bill, which was passed by the New York State Assembly but was frozen at the Senate level. The Marriage Equality for Same-Sex Marriage Act states, ‘A marriage that is otherwise valid shall be valid regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex.” This act would legalize same-sex marriage in New York.

Martinez married her wife, Lisa, in Canada in 2004. Martinez faced the Supreme Court and Appellate Court to get her marriage acknowledged by her employer, Monroe Community College, so the couple could receive spousal benefits. On Feb. 1 of this year, in response to the Martinez case, the Appellate Court ruled that same-sex marriages lawfully solemnized in jurisdictions outside New York must be recognized in the state.

‘If you come away with nothing else tonight, understand why marriage matters,” Martinez said. ‘There are so many legal protections marriage affords that we cannot fully comprehend.”

She went on to state examples of inheritance, property rights and hospital visitation rights that are not different for same-sex marriages.

Next, Barres spoke passionately about transgender rights.

‘I’m 66 years old,” she began in response to Bronson’s earlier comment. ‘I can’t wait another 31 years to have rights.”

The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act does not protect transgenders. Barres spoke about the struggle to be included in the New York State Declaration of Human Rights: ‘gender identity and expression which would protect all people who identified themselves as transgender.”

In addition, she spoke about the amendment to the New York civil rights law, Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA). According to the bill, ‘GENDA would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, and would recognize such discrimination as a hate crime.” Up until this point, the meeting had stayed bipartisan, but Barres broke this precedent.

‘I don’t think we should tiptoe around the issue,” she said. ‘We need a change in leadership.”

According to the panelists, the republican majority leadership in the Senate has prevented any pro-LGBT laws from passing, even though the governor is willing to sign the legislation and the Assembly has already approved the Marriage Equality, GENDA and Reproductive Health. Bronson stated that, in Monroe County, two democrats are running for State Senate against republican incumbents. Both democrats running are in favor of civil liberties.

Finally, the panel turned to civil liberties. Pudup outlined the way the New York State government works and emphasized the importance of preserving civil liberties.

‘Even if Barack Obama is elected president, there is still a chance that Roe v. Wade will be overturned,” Pudup said. ‘Roe v. Wade is not just about abortion. It’s about personal privacy in medical decisions.”

Pudup spoke about the Reproductive Health and Privacy Act that would ensure New York State residents with certain provisions even if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned on the federal level.

The act declares that every individual has a fundamental right to privacy with respect to certain personal reproductive decisions.

Most of the students in the audience stayed for the full two-hour panel and even asked questions of the panelists after the formal discussion was over.

‘I think it is really important that in a country of equal rights; everyone truly has basic rights,” freshman Melanie Prasad said.

The Pride Network sponsored the event along with VOX, Women’s Caucus and other organizations. College Republicans did not sponsor the event, even though their name was misprinted on the flyers.

‘Many students are oblivious to things that are happening in the government,” Papastrat said. ‘[They] do not know what LGBT bills are being debated in New York State. Our goal is to inform students of current initiatives to gain civil liberties both in New York and by the federal government.”

Sahay is a member of the class of 2010.

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