Daniel O’Donnell never thought he could be a politician. But in 2002, he became the first openly gay man elected to the New York State Assembly. Fifteen years later, he’s still in Albany representing the residents of Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side.
Throughout his time as an assemblyman, O’Donnell has continuously worked to improve the state’s correctional system, protect the environment and advocate for the rights of groups, such as tenants and the LGBT community. The Marriage Equality Act, of which he was the primary sponsor, was signed into law in 2011.
While there’s recently been a lot of discussion about the state of education in the United States under the Trump administration, O’Donnell has long devoted his time and efforts to reforming education in New York. His most recent endeavor involves tackling HIV education.
With this new administration, do you have any concerns about all the progress that’s been made for the LGBT community?
I have great concerns because the rhetoric coming out of the president and his supporters is a rhetoric of hate. And any time there’s hate rhetoric, people act on that rhetoric.
I’m very lucky because we live in New York. Our marriage statute was written and passed by me. The only way to change that law in New York would be if New York changed its law, which I can assure you it’s not going to do.
There is a rift at the federal level, certainly with the president appointing Supreme Court judges. Supreme Court judges could theoretically take away the right of federal recognition of the marriages, but the marriages themselves are going to stay put in New York as long as I’m in the legislature to protect them.
On a more personal level, how does it all make you feel?
It makes me very angry, and it reminds me that the struggle for equality never ends.
We have to organize. We have to remind ourselves what we’re fighting for. We have to make sure that we keep us together and our allies together so we have a fighting chance to make sure that no harm comes to LGBT people.
For young people who have grown up [at a time when] there were constantly positive movements on this subject, it must be very disheartening. I understand that. But for those of us who were around when there was no movement, no possibility for gay people to live openly or for gay people to have their relationships recognized, we understand this is just a part of a long-term struggle.
You are the assembly sponsor for the Dignity for All Students Act [DASA]. Can you talk a little about that?
That’s the bill that provides protection for public school students to try to prevent bullying and harassment. It was passed in 2010 under the fabulous leadership of Governor [David] Patterson who fought diligently to get it through. We had passed it in our House since the ’90s, but the Senate had always refused to take it up because it included protection for gender identity and expression.
The Dignity for All Students Act was the first time that trans folk were recognized under New York State law and provided with protection.
On that note, what are your thoughts on President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw federal protections for transgender students to use the bathroom aligned with their chosen gender identity?
It’s a shame and a horror. I think the purpose of things like [the Dignity Act] is to keep children safe wherever they are and that includes in a bathroom. If somebody feels that their gender identity doesn’t match and that they’re in fear of using that other bathroom, they shouldn’t be required to do so.
We are looking at legislative solutions now in New York state to address that problem, but the Dignity Act, in my opinion, already protects students in that circumstance.
In September 2016, you wrote a letter to New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to discuss your concerns about the Dignity Act’s implementation and HIV education in schools. What sparked you to take that action?
There’s something called QuERI [The Queering Education Research Institute], which is a gay and lesbian research [group] that works at Hunter College. [Founder and director] Dr. Elizabethe Payne knows more about bullying prevention more than anybody in the country. She took it upon herself to do a study to learn from schools how the implementation of Dignity was going.
We learned that there are a number of significant problems. The most significant problems in the implementation of Dignity have to do with teacher training and the oversight of teachers. What we’ve learned is that teachers aren’t sensitized in their [own] education to be understanding of the diversity of the kids they are going to be instructing when they get into the classroom.
Because of that, they also looked at the question of HIV education and how that was or was not being done. We learned that New York was very far behind other places. [The state] didn’t even require that HIV education be medically accurate. We also learned that some places are using 1980s information about HIV and its transmission in what they’re teaching students.
We asked the state education department to boost up their diversity training as a requirement to get an education license to teach in the state of New York as well as address the curriculum problem surrounding HIV and AIDS.
It’s been almost seven months since you sent the commissioner the letter. Are there any official plans to make necessary changes?
[Editor’s note: New York State Education Department Commissioner Elia sent a response letter to O’Donnell in February. Elia advised O’Donnell that steps would be taken to assess the current training and curriculum of the DASA. She also said the HIV/AIDS education requirement would be updated to include medically accurate and modernized language.]
We are continuing to push to try to get [the state] to change what the education requirements are. If we fail to do that, it may require us to write new legislation, which I’m perfectly willing to do.
In 2014, you were part of the New York City’s World AIDS Day Coalition event at which Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the statewide plan to reduce the number of HIV infections to just 750 by 2020. How do you think updating the HIV curriculum in schools might play a part in that?
It’s extraordinarily important. If someone is young, sexually active, doesn’t know how to protect themselves or how to protect their partners, that’s how the disease will continue to spread. Obviously, kids are sexual at a younger age than they used to be.
If we really are serious about reducing HIV and its transmission, we have to start by making sure that people know how to do that.
The 2014 School Health Profiles by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that American schools are largely failing to provide young people with comprehensive sexual education. Can you talk about what should or can be done on a national level to get all schools on the same page?
That’s very difficult because historically, elementary education and high school education have been left to the localities. The federal government has not really stepped in to say, ‘This is what you should or shouldn’t do,’ except as it relates sometimes to the Common Core or issues related to specific training in schools. But they generally leave the actual teaching and the question of what is taught and how it is taught to the local states.
The states have to step up.
We steal [ideas] from each other. There are certain things they do really good in Texas. If they do it good in Texas, we should make it the policy here, and so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to see where there are other places where that is being done better and try to make sure that we raise the bar here in New York.
What are your thoughts on how the education of children can help reduce HIV stigma?
When I was younger, it was a real issue that young people would be suicidal upon learning their HIV status because to many people it was viewed as a death sentence. That is, thankfully, no longer the case, but there’s still the stigma attached to the diagnosis.
I think the [discussion around HIV/AIDS] that has occurred in New York [via] posters and [ads] on the subway have been a very good help.
We do a wonderful job with [peer education], where young people go out and talk to other young people about their own struggle and fight to learn, know and react to their status.
There’s a lot more that needs to be done. We need to make sure that people feel comfortable getting tested because knowing your status means knowing that you can prevent the transmission [of HIV]. Knowing your status also means knowing that you know how to take care of your own health.
What is some advice you can offer young people with regard to educating themselves about sexually transmitted diseases?
It’s very, very helpful and beneficial to them and their long-term health to know that on their own. There are a variety of mechanisms out there to learn about them. There is a variety of medically accurate information on the web. They should be well versed in knowing how to protect themselves from pregnancy as well as from STDs and HIV.
If they have the information, they are much more likely to live a long, healthy life, which is what we’re trying to make them do. I have no concerns about whether or not they’re straight, gay, bisexual or anything in-between. Whoever they are, they should be able to know what healthy sex practices are and to learn how to do them at the earliest age possible.