Opinion: LGBTQ+ New Yorkers Deserve More than Just Acceptance in Congress, They Deserve Solidarity

As published in Columbia Public Policy Review on June 1st, 2020

June marks the five-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case which pronounced that our constitution’s fundamental principles of equal protection and due process of law guarantee marriage equality (and all the important rights and opportunities that flow therefrom) to all persons, including those in our LGBTQ+ community. As we mark that historic milestone, we should note, in this season of presidential politics, that it has also been a mere eight years since the Democratic Party first included marriage equality in its national platform. So, let us not forget, nor take for granted, how far the arc has bent, and how far it still needs to bend, toward complete justice and equality for the LGBTQ+ community.

Twenty years ago, not a single state permitted same-sex marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were the law of the land. When I was growing up, legal discrimination kept thousands in the shadows, forcing them to live with the fear that being open about their identity and the identities of their loved ones would invite not only social ostracization, but legal liability, economic devastation, and physical harm.

In this time of pandemic, it should also be emphasized that, when I was a young boy in New York City in the 1980s, a viral plague struck not only my city, but also my family. Years passed, it seemed, without sufficient mobilization and attention, until a young boy from Indiana and a global basketball icon in Los Angeles fell ill—America just couldn’t empathize with the scope of the HIV public-health disaster until the virus had a face that wasn’t part of the LGBTQ+ community.

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors and brother of a young man with special needs, I am especially attuned to the corrosive winds of discrimination and bigotry. But I am also heartened by how we all rally together to protest injustice and hate, as we saw in the recent Women’s Marches and in the counter-protests in Charlottesville.

Two recent events in Rockland County, NY have further emphasized that hopefulness to me, even though both followed on the heels of a violent criminal attack. First, in December, we saw a despicable act of antisemitic violence against Hannukah worshippers in Monsey, New York. Soon thereafter, however, the United States Department of Justice, which I had previously proudly served as a federal prosecutor, brought criminal charges against the perpetrator of that heinous crime. And what was the law under which those charges were brought? The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (HCPA).

In other words, a federal law passed in part to honor the tragic victim of a homophobic hate crime was being enforced to protect and vindicate the rights of victims of an antisemetic hate crime. What an apt application of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Second, and just a few months later, a woman was senselessly and fatally stabbed in Spring Valley, New York during her shift at the desk of the Finkelstein Memorial Library. When I visited the makeshift memorial erected in her honor, I saw members of the African American, Haitian, and Hassidic communities of Spring Valley congregating in mourning, celebrating her life, and condemning that crime in solidarity. We are finally realizing that we are all part of the same broad fabric.

That’s why my support of the LGBTQ+ community is about more than just acceptance. It is about solidarity. That was the vision that I carried as a federal prosecutor and Assistant United States Attorney, where I prosecuted, among other crimes, crimes of sexual violence, predation, and blackmail. And that is the vision I will have as the congressperson for New York’s 17th Congressional District.

First, I will work to codify LGBTQ+ equality into law by passing the Equality Act, which will ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in sectors like employment, housing, credit. Today, half of LGBTQ+ people live in a state where it is legally permissible for an employer to fire, pass over for a promotion, or harass them without legal repercussions. In housing, one study found same-sex couples experienced discrimination in 27 percent of housing rental, sales, and financing tests. The Equality Act will not rid discrimination from our communities forever, but it will outlaw legal discrimination, and that is a helpful and necessary, though insufficient, start.

Second, I’ll foster a greater sense of inclusion and belonging among the LGBTQ+ community through federally-funded research and services that support their well-being. We will ensure our health-insurance system includes a strong and competitive public option, which provides essential health services while also pushing for all healthcare insurance plans to cover fertility services, which are especially vital for same-sex couples seeking to have biological children.

I’ll also vote for increased funding to curb bullying of LGBTQ+ students and support runaway and homeless LGBTQ+ youth, who are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. And, I’ll devote more research funding to the National Institute of Health to study HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment options, including current options like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), while ensuring that the pricing and payment mechanics for these vital treatments are accessible to all.

Finally, I’ll fight to rectify injustices that still persist. We will outlaw the gay panic defense, an insidious legal tactic that attempts to explain and excuse a defendant’s violent actions on the basis that they were provoked by an alleged and unwanted same-sex sexual advance. I will call on the President to lift the ban on transgender and transsexual individuals from serving in the military. And, I will ensure enforcement of existing hate-crime legislation, like the HCPA.

The trajectory of the movement to achieve full LGBTQ+ equality, inclusion, and justice is headed in the right direction, but we as a nation can do much more. That is why I am proud to be endorsed by Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a trailblazer, progressive changemaker, and tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. And that is why I believe that twenty years from today we will be able to look back together with satisfaction on all that we will have accomplished together between now and then, with our children hardly able to believe we once lived in a time where the great American promise of equality and inclusion didn’t extend to each and every one of us.