It Can Happen Here

Is New York's Marriage Law Gender Neutral? The City Council Speaker Says Yes. The Mayor Says No. It's Time for the Rest of us to March.

Gay-marriage activists are mobilizing for a march on City Hall—and possibly the marriage bureau—on Thurs- day. For a change, they won't be squaring off against an evil empire. No one in a position to influence the issue thinks gay couples shouldn't be allowed to wed. But no one wants to be the person to make it happen. And the complexity of city regulations gives everyone plenty of cover.

The City Clerk, Victor Robles, says he can't issue same-sex marriage licenses without the mayor's approval. But a mayoral spokesperson insists that Robles "acts independently."

The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, doesn't "think it is my business who you marry." But he won't tell the clerk to issue licenses to same-sex couples because he believes state law forbids it.

New Paltz mayor—and possible marriage perp—Jason West.
photo: Cary Conover
New Paltz mayor—and possible marriage perp—Jason West.


More coverage of Bush's Gay Marriage Ban:
  • I'd Leave America, but My Wife Won't Let Me by Laura Conaway
  • Inside City Hall: Politics and Protest by Richard Goldstein
  • A Radical Fix: Civil Unions for All by Alisa Solomon
  • Mad on the Street: New Yorkers Weigh In by Coco McPherson
  • Constitutional Amendments: The Winners and Losers by L.A. Scot Powe Jr.

  • Demonstrate!
    Participate in NEW YORK MARRIAGE NOW!, a demonstration at City Hall on Thursday, March 4, 2004 from 8:00 AM until 9:30 AM. Visit for more information.

    The City Council Speaker, Gifford Miller, begs to differ. He contends that New York's marriage law is gender neutral, and therefore the mayor should let the weddings begin. Of course, the council appoints the City Clerk, so the Speaker might be expected to sway Robles. But Miller says he lacks the power to direct him.

    Still, the council isn't sitting idly by. It is weighing several symbolic resolutions on gay marriage: one condemning the proposed federal amendment and another urging the state legislature to reform the marriage statute. What about a more concrete resolution urging the City Clerk to act? Marriage advocates have pushed for such a statement, but it wasn't mentioned by Miller until this reporter started asking questions.

    In the council, considering and acting are very different things, especially when it comes to gay rights. A bill requiring large city contractors to offer their workers domestic-partner health coverage has languished for about 18 months, despite the fact that it now enjoys a veto-proof majority. A vote on the measure planned for last month has been postponed until April. Unless they are pushed, most council members are content to let the process unfold at a leisurely pace. And no one has publicly prodded these pols to act on marriage until now.

    In fact, national marriage-advocacy groups, concerned about the reaction of New York courts, urged sympathetic officials to lay back. And some local gay officials have been too loyal to hold their leaders' feet to the fire. But after recent events in San Francisco and New Paltz, every "honorable" in New York politics is being forced to take a stand.

    At a press conference on the steps of City Hall last Sunday, Miller told the cheering crowd, "This is simply too important an issue to be scared off by politics." But the Speaker surely knows that politics is at the heart of what keeps New Yorkers of the same sex from wedding here and now.

    If gays want to marry, says the mayor's spokesperson, they shouldn't hound the city clerk; they should organize to change the law. But it would be easier to move the state capital to Woodstock than to get the state legislature to reform the marriage statute.

    Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno had to be dragged into passing a gay rights bill in 2002, and that's where he wants the issue to stop. Meanwhile in the Democrat-dominated assembly, Speaker Shelly Silver, who hasn't taken a public position on gay marriage, is reportedly appalled by the idea. As Richard Gottfried, chief sponsor of the stalled assembly marriage bill, notes, "We have a long way to go" before it reaches the floor. So much for the State Democratic Committee's declaration of support for same-sex mat-rimonial rights.

    There the matter would rest, except for two bar association reports asserting that gay marriage is already legal here because the state statute makes no explicit mention of gender. What's more, the state health department, which has been giving New Paltz's mayor grief, doesn't regulate marriage licenses in the city. Says attorney Lawrence C. Moss, a key figure in the local marriage fight, "We have a right to act under current law."

    In 2001, when the second bar association report appeared, the president of that organization, former Watergate prosecutor Evan A. Davis, wrote: "We hope to persuade the Attorney General to issue an opinion that the proper construction of New York's statutes permits same-sex marriage." The A.G., Eliot Spitzer, is expected to weigh in on the issue later this week. No doubt the bar association report will play a part in his reasoning.

    "The bar association is often the harbinger for institutional support," says Brad Hoylman, president of Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, a political club. "They were very useful on AIDS discrimination and adoption rights." Indeed, the state's high court agreed with the bar association's positions, ruling that that a gay or lesbian couple can adopt a child together and that a tenant cannot be evicted when his or her partner dies. These decisions implicitly recognize that same-sex couples are a family.

    But marriage is a far more explosive issue than adoption and tenant rights. It will affect the fortunes of every politician who takes sides. Even Michael Cardoza, the city's corporation counsel, whose legal opinion gave the mayor and the City Clerk shelter, has revised his thinking to suit the role he now plays. Cardoza was the bar association's president back in 1997 when its first marriage report was issued. He approved the report then, but now, Cardoza's spokesperson says, he has "no comment."

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