By Bruce Poli
Question: What is the definition of a Public Servant? Answer: Tom Duane
Openly gay and openly HIV positive former New York State Senator Tom Duane was a courageous trailblazer for may LGBT ‘politicians’ to come : Debra Glick, Christine Quinn, Corey Johnson, Brad Hoylman, to name a few.
However, in contrast, as recently as in the documentary Koch, which opened days after his death, even former mayor Ed Koch refused to acknowledge his homosexuality. “None of your fucking business” he snapped to the question “Now we can finally ask you, “Are you Gay?”
It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke “My grandfather… on his deathbed… sold me his watch.”
As stated in a 2016 article in POZ: “A true New Yorker and an ACT UP veteran, Tom Duane isn’t one to mince words. He got straight to the point during his ultimately successful run for the New York City Council in 1991, coming out as HIV-positive in a letter to voters at the height of the AIDS crisis.”
His Chief of Staff was Christine Quinn; that’s where she got her start in politics and rose to Speaker of the House under Michael Bloomberg also as openly gay.
Beyond his outspoken leadership on HIV/AIDS, however, Tom actually passed a lot of important legislation in his long time as a public servant.
In Albany he shepherded the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which barred discrimination based on sexual orientation in New York in 2002, played a key role in passing a hate crimes act in 2000 and was a lead sponsor of the legislation that legalized same-sex marriage in the Empire State in 2011.
His speeches on the Senate floor were as famous for their passion as their verbosity.
Since retiring from the Senate in 2012, Duane has kept on talking, teaching civics at Baruch College and maintaining a schedule of speaking engagements.
I include here a selection from an interview in the same POZ article which reveals his brilliance and compassion, and how Tom Duane became a model for LGBT leadership at the most important level— policy and legislation:
Q What was it like being out about your HIV status as an elected official?
A When I first went to Albany, there was one senator who didn’t want to shake my hand.
I think in a way, my colleagues quickly forgot that I had HIV and [it] kind of became a non-issue. But because they kind of forgot, they [would support] stigmatizing policies, and I would have to remind them again.
At one point, I wanted to stop a bad [HIV] testing bill. I passed out a letter to all members of the assembly telling them that I was living with HIV. This gave me standing on educating them [about] what the best policies could be around HIV and AIDS.
Q Speak about your efforts surrounding such policies.
A I stopped all the horrible stigmatizing, criminalizing bills from the time I got there. The predominant one was HIV presumption laws. That means if someone had to go on disability because they had AIDS, it was presumed that they contracted [HIV] on the job.
People should have really known better, but those bills sailed through with very little debate. It was shocking that when I arrived in the Senate in 1999, people were still living with the same myth of how HIV is transmitted. I read that there are only four ways [to contract the virus]: breast feeding, sharing contaminated needles, blood transfusions and unprotected vaginal or anal sex. I would read that off every time one of these bills came out.
Additionally, I got a law passed that mandated the offering to everyone to have an HIV test.
I also wanted to tell people that they are protected against discrimination should they test positive and make sure that people are immediately provided with health care. I think that is a good model, and variations of that law have been passed around the nation.
Q How do you feel about HIV’s current place in the political arena?
There is still some stigma and discrimination on HIV and AIDS. Is it diminished? Somewhat, yes, but is it still predominant somewhere in the other states or around the nation? Yes. I think we see that through the continued criminalization of people with HIV.
The other thing is that the funding is still not how it should be for research on HIV.
Thank you Tom Duane for your openness, your passion and your strength of character. You are a Village, NYC and NY State legend we will never forget to thank for all you have done. We stand on your shoulders.