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Fight Over NYC Gay Rights Bill Echoes the Past

March 17, 1986 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ The scene was New York’s City Council chamber. The speaker was Edward I. Koch. The subject was the proposed gay rights bill.

″Discrimination against someone because of his or her sexual orientation in this day and age is barbaric. It is a stain on our society that must be removed by legislative action at all levels of government,″ Koch said.

The year was 1974.

The year is now 1986. Congressman Koch has become mayor, but he and the council are still debating a bill that would guarantee homosexuals equal rights in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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This time, though, indications are that come Thursday, the nation’s largest city, seen by much of the country as a liberal bastion where anything goes, may join the 50 municipalities, dozen counties and one state, Wisconsin, that already have gay rights laws.

Newspaper polls indicated last week that 19 of the 35 council members supported Intro. 2, as the bill is called.

But opponents promised a furious effort to prevent the bill from passing. In the last weekend of campaigning, priests throughout the Archdiocese of New York encouraged their parishioners to write to City Hall to oppose the bill.

Already, council members have received thousands of letters from both sides. A gay rights rally has been scheduled for Tuesday.

″It’s going to be a tremendous lobbying effort,″ said Councilman Noach Dear, a Brooklyn Democrat who is leading the fight against Intro. 2. ″I’m not giving in, by any means. This is going to be a tough fight.″

In a sense, it is a fight that began in New York in 1969, when a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall, set off riots. Gay rights activists say their movement began with that uprising.

Two years later, City Councilman Carter Burden introduced the first gay rights bill in the country. It was ignored. But in 1974, the Committee on General Welfare voted to send the bill to the full council.

Police and firefighter unions sought exemptions for their departments. Said Fire Lt. Raymond Marino: A firefighter should be ″a man’s man, a robust man, a man you can count on - our lives depend on it.″

The debate was often angry. ″It was the same old arguments - whether the Bible says it’s an abomination, and such and so on,″ said Paul O’Dwyer, who was City Council president and a co-sponsor of the bill.

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The bill lost, 22-19.

Proponents said they’d fight on. But in 1975, 1976, 1978, 1981 and 1983 - years when other cities across the country enacted similar legislation - the bill was defeated in committee and never reached the council floor.

Some blame Thomas J. Cuite of Brooklyn, the majority leader and an avowed opponent of the gay rights bill. They say he stacked the committee with opponents.

″It was an outrage,″ said Andy Humm of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. ″If it wasn’t for Cuite it would have passed in 1974. But the way it was, you voted the way Cuite wanted or you didn’t get your mail for a month.″

But O’Dwyer feels Cuite’s opposition ″really didn’t have much to do with it. It was the council’s fear of its constituents. They were afraid. It was, ’What are the voters going to do in a close race if I vote for this bill?‴

And O’Dwyer noted that the strongest, best organized opponents of the bill were the archdiocese and the large Hasidic Jewish community. ″That can be an effective combination,″ he said dryly.

On the other hand, the bill has been endorsed by Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore and leaders of Protestant denominations and Reform and Conservative Jewry.

Although the bill’s supporters repeatedly met with defeat over the years, there were other signs the times were changing.

Efforts to force the bill out of committee were increasingly close. Soon after Koch became mayor, he signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination in city agencies; the Fire Department was included, and department spokesman John Mulligan said there had been no problems there.

Ron Najman, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said there had also been a sea change in public attitudes, especially among young people who are more aware of gay peers and colleagues.

″They’re on the assembly lines with people they know are gay, they’re at the office water cooler with people they know are gay,″ Najman said.

In January, Cuite retired. The man elected to replace him, Stephen DiBrienza, 31, supports the gay rights bill.

Cuite’s departure has not cooled the rhetoric, however. Dear, for example, refers to fellow Brooklyn Councilman Samuel Horwitz as a man who ″betrayed his own people″ by coming out in favor of the bill. Both councilmen represent heavily Hasidic districts.

″I want to raise my children in an atmosphere that is free of drugs, free of crime and free of pornography. Now I have to worry about gay rights, too. ... Are you going to protect bestiality next? What’s next?″ Dear asked.

The committee that sent the bill to the council floor operated in a whirlwind of debate. Hasidim and homosexuals traded catcalls, as each side heckled its opponents as they testified.

Neither has lobbying been subtle. Cardinal John J. O’Connor has asked Catholic lay leaders to help fight the bill. He and Brooklyn Bishop Francis J. Mugavero publicly condemned it, saying it would legitimize homosexuality.

″We strongly believe that such a result would seriously undermine the moral education and values of our youth and the stability of family in our society,″ they said.

Humm said O’Connor’s actions were ″despicable and distracting.″ The bill specifically says it does not endorse homosexuality, and it exempts religious institutions from its provisions.

The gay rights bill, he said, is ″a bottom line issue. People have to have recourse.″ The Human Rights Commission has registered 474 complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation in two years.

If the bill fails, Humm said, the result would be emotional ″devastation″ to the gay community. If it passes, and opponents go ahead with threats to bring the issue to a referendum in November, the results could be worse, he said.

″It would tear the city asunder, tear the city apart,″ he said.