The bitter sweetness of winning LGBT reforms

January 24, 2019

Isabelle Bartter reflects on the years of struggle — and repeated Democratic betrayals — before the passage of New York’s Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.

THE NEW York State Senate finally passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) on January 15, 16 years after cutting it out of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA).

Since then, I have started and stopped writing this article a dozen times. This is the dilemma of being a trans woman in a thoroughly transphobic world. While part of me is so relieved and so happy because this bill will give legal protections to tens of thousands of otherwise unprotected trans siblings throughout New York, part of me can’t help but feel the immense weight of what it took to get us here and the siblings we lost along the way.

When I began transitioning after college, I was living in a tiny fishing town north of Syracuse, New York. I knew exactly one other queer person. So when I was ready to finally come out for the first time, I offered him a ride home from work.

Little did I know that he would also come out as trans. He also hadn’t told anyone else, so we shared that moment together. It’s one of my happiest memories and one of the hardest.

Demonstrators rally for trans rights in New York City
Demonstrators rally for trans rights in New York City

Soon after he came out to his Christian fundamentalist parents, they forced him to go to their church to be “cured” of his queer and trans demons through exorcism. This involved locking him in the basement of the church and “praying over him.” At 17, he was left in that basement alone for three days. He ended his life not long after.


A STUDY by UCLA Law School released last year estimates that 57,000 youth will be subjected to this type of practice from a religious or spiritual adviser before the age of 18, and of the nearly 700,000 Americans who have been subjected to “conversion therapy,” 350,000 were minors at the time.

I do not bring this up to give evidence as to why this ban was necessary or why the practice is so vile. I bring this up because, like GENDA, which sat collecting dust in the State Senate for 16 years after SONDA was passed, a law banning such conversion therapy has also been trapped in limbo since it was first introduced decades ago.

This bill passed the New York State Assembly the same year that SONDA took effect — in 2003. Since then, the Assembly passed the bill 11 more times. If that sounds familiar, it should. This is almost exactly the same as GENDA’s contorted political history, albeit without the flagrant backstabbing of removing it from a different bill.

Perhaps a bill would not have prevented my friend from being subjected to torture, but the lack of GENDA was a conversation we had many times that brought us both a great deal of distress.

I write about GENDA because I believe that it epitomizes the expectations that those fighting for queer and trans liberation should have in regards to the Democratic Party — even in a blue state like New York.

The Democratic Party says that they support LGBT rights, even while Democratic candidates for the highest office in the land have histories around LGBT issues that include gems like, “As Democrats we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists.”

I’ve written before about the disgusting way that trans lives are treated as disposable when we can be made into a political bargaining chip for the Democrats, but I’d like to walk through a little bit more of that history through the eyes of the great trans revolutionary and perhaps most famous trans “extremist” Sylvia Rivera.


GENDA WAS first introduced in the New York legislature in 1971, one year after Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The nine-point STAR manifesto laid out a revolutionary list of demands, some of which were encapsulated in the reforms included in GENDA. Here’s a selection:

The end to all job discrimination against transvestites of both sexes and gay street people because of attire.

The immediate end of all police harassment and arrest of transvestites and gay street people, and the release of transvestites and gay street people from all prisons and all other political prisoners.

The end to all exploitive practices of doctors and psychiatrists who work in the field of transvestism.

Transvestites who live as members of the opposite gender should be able to obtain identification of the opposite gender.

Transvestites and gay street people should be granted full and equal rights on all levels of society, and full voice in the struggle for liberation of all oppressed people.

While part of me is thrilled that some of these demands, first drawn up 49 years ago, were passed this year in GENDA, another part of me is disgusted that it took so long to pass a bill that more or less says, “Treat trans people like people.”

So what took so long? Rivera lays it out in a 2001 speech titled “Bitch on Wheels” that was delivered a year before her death:

When we were petitioning for the Gay Rights Bill, there was only one person that was arrested. That was me. Because I had the guts to go into the Times Square area on 42nd Street and petition the people to sign that petition. And the only reason I did it was because that bill did include the transgender community.

Two or three years into the movement, and the bill is being presented, and we’re going back and forth to City Hall. They have a little backroom deal without inviting Miss Sylvia and some of the other trans activists to this backroom deal with these politicians. The deal was, “You take them out, we’ll pass the bill.” So what did nice conservative gay white men do? They sell a community that liberated them down the river, and it still took them 17 years to get the damn bill passed!

A friend shared this memory on social media: “I can still hear Sylvia next to me outside the Empire State Pride Agenda yelling ‘No ENDA without TRANSGENDA!’”


RIVERA PASSED away from liver cancer in 2002, just three weeks after the Assembly passed the final SONDA bill with GENDA removed. She deserved better. I have written about the complacency of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), but I believe an even greater share of the blame belongs to the Democratic Party establishment that has repeatedly deprioritized queer and trans rights to serve its own interests.

Rivera’s legacy was insulted when GENDA was removed from SONDA as well as every time the state legislature ended a session without passing GENDA — especially in 2008 and 2009 when Democrats controlled held State Senate.

Every year that conversion therapy remained legal was another year that countless queer and trans youth would contemplate ending their lives to avoid the trauma of living in a place where they could legally be “cured” by a therapist or a church.

There is time for mourning and rage, but we cannot be consumed by it for long. We still have so much work to do, and after all, this is a victory for our side.

Our side, the trans liberationists and revolutionary socialists, who threw the first bricks at Stonewall, who have supported LGBTQI struggles all along, who participated in ACT UP, we who have for decades have buried our loved ones whose lives were cut short by hate or suicide or AIDs or the state. We cannot afford the luxury of being naive.

We cannot convince ourselves, like some politicians or nonprofits or NGOs will do now, that a non-discrimination bill will dismantle trans oppression overnight, and neither will a ban on conversion therapy end the practice immediately.

It is up to us to continue the struggle for queer and trans liberation. We’ve seen over and over that no one is going to give it to us. We must demand it. Last week, we won GENDA and a ban on conversion therapy. We should celebrate that and let these wins rekindle our flames, while not losing sight of all we deserve.

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