One of the great joys of my career, along with founding Garden State Equality in 2004 and leading it since, has been teaching this semester at Rutgers Law School in Newark. I have always loved academia. As most of you know, I even returned to school in mid-career to study to be a rabbi, a lifelong aspiration from which I’ve been on leave to serve as Garden State Equality’s Chair and CEO. I’ll resume my rabbinic studies for certain. But now I have the chance work at a university full-time, as Rutgers-Newark has asked me to become Associate Chancellor for External Relations. I have accepted the offer. My last day as Chair and CEO of Garden State Equality will be Sunday, January 20th, our Inauguration Celebration Brunch.
My portfolio at Rutgers-Newark will include government relations and communications. I will also continue to teach a course at Rutgers-Newark Law School. No other opportunity could have pulled me away from the work I love so much. There’s a personal bonus, too. My partner Daniel is starting his own business, and now I’d like to help him pursue his dream just as he has supported me all these years at Garden State Equality. Daniel, I love you.
Our transition at Garden State Equality will be seamless. My successor, elected by our Board of Directors in a conference call moments ago in accordance with our bylaws, comes from inside our organization. He’s a superb leader whom so many of you know and love, and I’ll tell you more in a moment.
But as he and I would attest, the real leaders of Garden State Equality are you. We have the most engaged Board and volunteers imaginable – thousands of grassroots leaders inspired by one another who show up on short notice, at our offices, at the State House and everywhere else we do direct action. Garden State Equality’s grassroots power has been so impressive – thanks to you – it was chronicled by a film that won an Academy Award® for Best Short Documentary, Freeheld.
You truly deserve the best. So I’m overjoyed that Garden State Equality’s Board has unanimously selected Troy Stevenson to be the new Chair and CEO of Garden State Equality effective Monday, January 21st. Troy served as our Managing Director, my deputy, until he became a field director for the 2012 Obama campaign in Pennsylvania, while continuing to serve on our Board to this day. He is an extraordinary field operative, political talent and all-around human being. Working by my side, he is the person I someday wanted to take my place, which you bet he can. This is hardly the end of an era.
In fact, Garden State Equality’s Board has graciously asked me to assume the title Founder and Chair Emeritus, which will be an ex officio position on the Board and its executive committee. I’m incredibly moved.
And don’t forget the public officials who, like me, will always be part of the Garden State Equality family. Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald – and their incomparable staff – along with our marriage equality hero Senator Raymond Lesniak, are champions not only of our mission, but of Garden State Equality itself. Love ya, Raymond. Loretta, of course, is the greatest political and personal friend our movement has had. Loretta, there are never enough I love yous. And thanks go to our legislators who have championed our bullied kids, including Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. Love ya, Valerie.
My boundless love and gratitude goes to Larry Lustberg and his colleagues at Gibbons, who, with Lambda Legal, are representing Garden State Equality and seven couples in our lawsuit for marriage equality. At the national level, I am grateful to Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among others; and at the state level, to New Jersey Citizen Action, the ACLU of New Jersey, BlueWave NJ and the state’s blog of political conscience, Blue Jersey. I am grateful to our pro-equality clergy of 19 different faiths, denominations and movements, and to our sisters and brothers in the labor movement, especially the CWA-New Jersey for its pathbreaking leadership for LGBT equality.
Most of all, this is a time to thank you. Because of your passion, Garden State Equality’s achievements have been legion.
You have built an organization of 124,850 members whose work has led to 213 LGBT civil rights laws at the state, county and local levels since 2004. Today, New Jersey has the best anti-bullying law in the nation – ranked #1 by a U.S. Department of Education study in December 2011 that compared the laws of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Every week, Garden State Equality receives phone calls from parents or students telling us how the law has improved their lives, and saved some.
The thanks go to you.
Today, New Jersey is one of only three states in the entire country with a paid family leave law that encompasses same-sex couples – mandating that companies provide paid leave to allow employees to care for their same-sex partners in times of sickness.
The thanks go to you.
Today, New Jersey is a beacon to America for transgender civil rights. Our transgender anti-discrimination law passed by a combined legislative margin of 102 to 8. Our transgender anti-hate crimes law passed both houses by 100 to 10. And our transgender inclusive anti-bullying law passed both houses 103 to 1.
The thanks go to you.
And today, New Jersey is a model for how to pass a marriage equality bill notwithstanding a Governor strongly opposed.
We triumphed in both houses of the legislature notwithstanding obstacles with which no other state has had to contend. We didn’t have a Governor twisting arms on our behalf. We had a world-renowned Governor, in the country’s most institutionally powerful governorship, twisting arms against us right up until the final moments. But 24 Senators voted yes for marriage equality in February 2012 – a 70 percent increase in support over the 14 votes we got in 2010.
The key to overriding the Governor’s veto is staying focused. 2013, with Governor Christie at the top of the ticket and his unique ability to raise unspeakable amounts of money from across the country, would be the worst possible time to agree to a referendum. A loss could cost us seats in the legislature. It would also send a terrible signal to the courts, through which our case is making its way. A referendum loss could set our work back a generation. Remember, few thought we could pass a marriage equality bill in the first place under Governor Christie, let alone get the votes we did. But you never gave up or gave in. You confounded every expectation of what you could persuade the legislature to do.
So from the hills of Maplewood to the boardwalks of Ocean Grove to the malls of Cherry Hill, let the words resound again: We shall override!
And once we do, our organization will never have to ask, what’s next? It’s clear today: Our youth.
You have built a youth program that guarantees our organization’s future – an entire state’s future of fairness. Our Garden State Equality Youth Caucus has empowered adolescents and teens from across New Jersey, many of them survivors of bullying and other hate, to become a lifeline to a better world for themselves and us all.
Our program to counter school-related bullying is geared to all youth, LGBT and not. What alternative is there? A child is a child. Garden State Equality may be the country’s first civil rights organization that changed its mission from an exclusive focus on LGBT equality to helping non-LGBT people as well.
Vision matters, and each of you, dear members, has it. In the earlier days of our organization, a few leaders in our own national movement would wonder: Why, Garden State Equality, must you rock the boat for marriage? You have everything but marriage in name.
But New Jersey has lived what a different and stigmatizing name brings about – the refusal of too many hospitals, employers, schools and even loved ones to recognize any alternative label as equal to marriage. Long before others across the country understood or wanted to highlight the difference between civil unions and marriage, Garden State Equality was, and remains, relentless in bringing to public light the inequality brought about by laws that dehumanize through a lesser label.
Your vigilance has played a role in producing marriage equality already. In cases and legislation that have already led to marriage equality in other states – and will in ours – courts and legislators have specifically cited the New Jersey experience with civil unions. You have helped to change the lives not only of your fellow New Jerseyans, but also of countless others across the country.
You did it all, each and every one of you. Because of your inspirational devotion of time and energy, Garden State Equality has never had to choose between the inside track of strategic lobbying and the outside track of action on the streets. Our organization has pursued both tracks with gusto. That, more than anything else, has been the key to Garden State Equality’s success.
213 LGBT civil rights laws in Garden State Equality’s first eight years, and the best is yet to come. The organization will soar higher with me as a member than it ever reached with me as its leader. That is what the founder of any organization must want, and what this founder truly wants.
I’ll see many of you at our Inauguration Celebration Brunch on Sunday, January 20th and at other Garden State Equality events, no doubt, for years to come. This is no farewell. You’re family.