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Empire State Pride Agenda Decision to Disband Prompts Shock, Criticism

By Danielle Tcholakian | December 14, 2015 5:18pm

WEST VILLAGE — One of the state's oldest LGBT advocacy organizations announced this weekend that their work is finished and that they're shutting down.

The Empire State Pride Agenda sent an email to supporters Saturday touting their "groundbreaking" work on issues affecting LGBT New Yorkers.

Most recently, they said, their work with Gov. Andrew Cuomo resulted in the governor issuing an executive order earlier this year declaring transgender people a protected class under the state's Human Rights Law.

The order is only a regulation, however, and would only be made a law if codified under the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate for years.

Still, the Pride Agenda felt that after Cuomo's action the organization was no longer needed. 

"This announcement follows unanimous votes by our Boards of Directors earlier today and it comes on the heels of securing our top remaining priority — protecting transgender New Yorkers from discrimination," the email read.

But that notion, echoed in a fact sheet about GENDA posted to the Pride Agenda's website that asserted the organization had "achieved its top policy goal" struck many as akin to former President George W. Bush's famous "mission accomplished" declaration during the Iraq War.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of work left to be done, and I'm concerned that they are sending the wrong signal at a very important time to my colleagues in Albany," said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who backs GENDA. "[They are signaling] that we've accomplished all of the major goals in the LGBT human rights movement, which is far from the truth."

Kenneth Sherrill, a CUNY professor emeritus who specializes in political science and LGBT issues said Cuomo's executive order could be overturned at any time.

"By declaring victory in this fashion, they probably weakened the chance of getting the bill," Sherrill said. "Legislators will say, 'Well, but ESPA said you already won.'"

The decision was a surprise to many, including legislators who work closely with the community.

"I knew once the press release had been signed off, the same evening they announced," Hoylman said.

In fact, just two days prior, the organization had sent out an email soliciting donations from supporters.

"You are an important partner in our work and we need your support to start next year strong," the email said, concluding with a request to "please make a gift of $10, $25 or $40 online today."

Donations to LGBT organizations had dried up after marriage equality was passed, advocates said.

Some speculate that the organization was floundering financially — Gay City News and blogger Sarah Jenny found significant defecits in the group's tax returns.

The organization acknowledged on their website that they experienced "fundraising challenges [that] naturally coincide with mission victories," but insisted that finances had nothing to do with their decision.

The email Pride Agenda sent to supporters promises to maintain the organization's Political Action Committee (PAC) in an effort to "play a continuing role in electoral politics."

They also plan to select other organizations to "transition" some "aspects" of ESPA's policy work, and are still soliciting money from donors.

Melissa Sklarz, the co-chair of the group's nonprofit and vice chair of its PAC, said the decision came after the board had "been reviewing different options for some time."

As for GENDA, Sklarz said she has spent years trying to convince the Republicans of the New York State Senate "that trans lives matter."

With the recent conviction of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Sklarz noted that activists must now negotiate with state Sen. John Flanagan of Long Island.

"I wish people well in convincing him that he should bring our bill to the floor," she said. "People are going to have to be patient as they deal with Senator Flanagan and his majority conference."