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.

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."


City politics is always a bizarre balancing act, but this stunt makes Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the Twin Towers look easy. Every major player has a lot to gain and lose from taking a stand.

Giff Miller is a longtime supporter of gay-marriage rights, and unlike many politicians who embraced this issue when it looked like pie in the sky, he still talks the talk. But Miller's principles happen to jibe with his mayoral ambitions. Stepping out front will enable him to mine the gay community's major political resource: its willingness to give generously, and in a co- ordinated way, to sympathetic candidates. On the other hand, Miller is seen as a creature of Manhattan, and he can ill afford to narrow that image further to Chelsea and Greenwich Village. This may be the reason why, though he's willing to make a personal statement on the steps of City Hall, Miller is reluctant to put his council on the legislative line. One advocate who met with the Speaker more than a year ago says he favored an "incremental" approach at the time.

Then there's Bloomberg, whose image in the outer boroughs is the political equivalent of the Gowanus Canal. He can't afford to burn his bridges and tunnels further by front-ing for the gay community. No wonder Bloomberg has declared his intention to veto the domestic-partner benefits bill when it finally passes the City Council. He'll have a hard time welcoming the Republican Convention to New York if wedding bells ring in its sodomitic precincts. Still, Bloomberg doesn't want to alienate the gay constituency that voted for him in 2001. The result is an open-minded attitude toward gay marriage coupled with a closed-door policy.

Even Victor Robles is in a tricky spot. He can't guess who the City Council Speaker will be when his tenure comes up for renewal in 2007. Then, too, if he sticks his neck out, some reporter might revisit the 1996 Daily News report of a sexual-harassment complaint against Robles made by a male employee. (The allegation was investigated but didn't lead to legal action.) No wonder Robles's former colleagues on the council want to shield him. No wonder he wants the mayor to take the heat.

Between their vulnerability and their ambition, New York politicians are a calculating lot, and that goes for out-and-proud pols as well. Fealty to the leadership can prevent them from pushing as hard as one might like. In the state assembly, Deborah Glick is close to Speaker Silver. Neither she nor her colleague Danny O'Donnell (Rosie's brother) have made waves about gay marriage. (In fact, Glick has suggested that the courts are the proper place for this issue to be resolved.) Senator Tom Duane is much freer to act, since he's not part of the ruling Republican leadership in that chamber, and Duane is planning to hold a forum on gay marriage on March 3. In the City Council, Christine Quinn is a key Miller lieutenant, and his enthusiasm for this issue enables her to be quite active. (The other queer council members, Margarita Lopez and Phil Reed, haven't ducked the issue, but they aren't as well positioned as Quinn.) In return, she is quick to cover for Miller's shortcomings.

Of course, loyalty begets political power—and goodies for gay constituents. But it doesn't necessarily move the agenda.

As for the marriage-advocacy groups, they haven't always worked together. Empire State Pride Agenda, which was instrumental in getting George Pataki to endorse the state gay-rights bill—and remains tight with the governor—has operated independently and some claim defiantly. Sources say ESPA urged some council members not to attend the Sunday press conference with Miller, and the group is holding its own pro-marriage rally days after the planned demonstrations. Calls to ESPA went unanswered.

The fact that the gay community has no mechanism for overseeing its organizations results in clashing between the suits and the streets. Connie Ress of Marriage Equality U.S.A. has taken pains to harness the energy of militants, but many leaders on this issue seem overly concerned about the prospect of agitation. They want middle-class couples with strollers to converge on the marriage bureau; not a ragtag legion shouting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia's got to go!"

To judge from the hundreds who attended an organizing meeting at the city's lesbian and gay center last Friday night, there's more order and less factionalism around this issue than is usually the case. Even some critics of marriage as an institution are willing to fight for that right—and the rest are staying out of sight. Marching on the halls of power has never failed this community. Let's not shrink from it now.


Demonstrators will assemble at City Hall on Thursday at 8 a.m. For further information about joining the protest, visit: nymarriagenow.org

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