Who Do We Have to Blow to Get Gay Marriage in New York?

The frustrating circle-jerk in Albany.

In Europe, Gay Pride parades are held each year on the occasion known as "Christopher Street Day"—a nod to the New York street that gave birth to the worldwide gay rights movement with the Stonewall riots.

But if this city once signified the leading edge of that movement, what does it say that in those European countries celebrating our fair city, there's gay marriage equality, but here, where the struggle for rights began, New York still can't get it right?

That seemed about to change at the beginning of the year. Governor Paterson was fully supportive of gay marriage rights, his popularity hadn't fully tanked yet, and gay voters had helped tip the State Senate in the Democrats' favor for the first time in 40 years. By June, Republican minority leader Dean Skelos said he'd let his members vote as they saw fit, and wouldn't block a gay marriage vote on the Senate floor. Once a marriage bill passed in the Assembly, the future looked as gay as a revival of Meet Me in St. Louis.

At least the governor’s on board.
Newscom
At least the governor’s on board.

Voters, it's true, rejected gay marriage in California and Maine, and gay marriage's Cassandra, Maggie Gallagher, resides right here in our state. But even Gallagher couldn't do anything about it if our legislature approved a marriage equality bill and Governor Paterson signed it into law.

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, for an opponent to repeal a new law," says Justin Phillips, assistant professor of political science at Columbia University. "The reason it was so easy in California and Maine is that those states have citizen initiatives, which allow voters to draft a new law or amend their constitution. New York does not." Once New York approves an equal marriage law, says Phillips, "it's pretty much here to stay."

So what, then, is the hang-up?

In a word, it's the Democrats.

To be more specific, it's the chickenshit Democrats in the Senate. Some are afraid of being exposed as bigots, some are afraid of being exposed as homo-lovers, and some are pro marriage equality but would rather block a vote than possibly see it defeated. In each case, it's that fear-of-fear thing that our most famous governor—who was perhaps married to a lesbian, it turns out—tried to warn us about.

Last week, Governor Paterson called lawmakers to a special session to deal with the state's hemorrhaging budget, but also to vote on gay marriage. Democratic senators punted.

"I'm still stinging from the disrespect we received," says Cathy Marino-Thomas, president of Marriage Equality New York. She had spent all of last Tuesday in the Senate Gallery and outside Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson's office, only to be ignored: "Our folks were out there all day, pouring their hearts out, begging for a vote, pleading for a vote—or, at least, an answer on whether or not there was even going to be a vote, and no one even addressed them!"

But Sampson and other senators don't want a gay marriage vote to happen until they can be assured of success. The Democrats hold only a 32-30 majority in the Senate, and that majority vanishes with members like the Bronx's Rubén Díaz, a Pentecostal minister who is a definite "No" vote.

NY1 captured Marino-Thomas screaming at him, "If he wants to be a reverend, then let him go back to the church. If you want to be a senator, then you stand up for the rights and laws of this country!"

But she admits to the Voice that Díaz frustrates her less than the senators who won't say how they plan to vote or who actively work to keep a vote from happening. "I hate to say it, and it may be the only thing I respect him for, but I respect Senator Díaz for at least taking a stand. You know where he stands on this issue. He doesn't try to hide it," she says.

Take Senator Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica), for example. Her office says the senator is undecided—she is not opposed to bringing the bill to the floor and, although she's had years to think about it, she won't decide until a bill actually comes to the floor.

So, because of the indecision of senators like Huntley, Sampson is reluctant to bring the bill to the floor. But because Sampson hasn't brought it to the floor, Huntley can remain undecided. It's a frustrating legislative circle-jerk.

Sampson has promised a vote by the end of the year, to which Marino-Thomas snorts, "Why should I believe that? They've made and broken this promise too many times to count."

If it doesn't happen, gays are getting ready to cut Democrats off financially—in New York, and nationally. Gay support has long been a pillar of Democratic fundraising, and some movement leaders are promising hell if Sampson reneges. Blogs from DailyKos to Ameriblog are calling for a national boycott of the DNC and Organizing for America (both failed to help defend marriage equality in Maine) until they generate some action on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

The national arena, of course, is where this will eventually and inevitably be resolved. As Molly McKay of Marriage Equality USA puts it, "islands of equality" cannot continue to exist from state to state. Just as the Supreme Court eventually forced backward states to accept interracial marriages in 1968, so, ultimately, the Supreme Court will find that denying gay marriage rights violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. When that happens, California's Proposition 8 and Maine's recent vote will be swept away and gay couples will be able to marry in every state. But how long before the Supreme Court is ready to make that obvious step is a question of aging justices and their replacements.

Ironically, it is George W. Bush's solicitor general who is most progressive about charging down this legal path: Ted Olson—yes, Bush's lawyer in Bush v. Gore, who has been joined by Gore's lawyer, David Boies—is representing California couples in a federal lawsuit charging that Proposition 8 is a violation of their right to equal protection. But with the same fear that has paralyzed Albany, the thought of possibly losing in the Supreme Court terrifies some marriage advocates so much that they don't think the risk is worth the gamble.

McKay doesn't see it that way, and is fully supportive of the California case. "Courage," she says, "is the act of facing action despite your fears." (Too bad the New York State Senate has never been much for profiles in courage.) Regardless, while the federal case incubates, she says, "You have to have a vote in the New York Senate. If you lose, then you know who you have to lobby, and you have a vote again next year." Plus, "you might win." To pass a marriage equality bill in the California State Assembly, McKay needed each of four undecided Democrats. She got all four, but not until they were forced to actually vote on the floor.

Governor Paterson also promises a vote by the end of the year. He may lack the political clout to make it happen, but he's taking the long view on this one, even if there are setbacks along the way. He mentioned that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed just five years after the Dred Scott decision, then added, "In my opinion, historically, I think we have lost touch with how movements for equality are reached. There are a lot of ups and downs."

sthrasher@villagevoice.com

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