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In a group ceremony before this year’s Gay Pride Parade, Staten Islander Luisa Rosario stood outside Manhattan’s posh Plaza Hotel and married her longtime partner, Donna Zelfine. Rosario had always thought she and Zelfine would someday be able to obtain full marriage rights in their home state of New York. That very week, though, on June 26, she heard that New Jersey, of all places, would be the next legal battleground. She was enthusiastic—but a bit surprised.
“To me, New Jersey seems kind of suburban, not as urbane as New York,” said Rosario. “There are so many gay couples in New York City, I figured that New York would be next.”
Despite the City Council’s move last month to recognize gay marriages from other states and nations—and the Times‘ decision just days later to publish gay marriage announcements—the wider political arena of New York State remains unfriendly to queer concerns. State legislators still haven’t passed a nondiscrimination law, and even the sponsor of a new bill to legalize same-sex marriage doesn’t give it much chance.
Worse, New York courts are stacked with conservative judges. So when Lambda Legal Defense went looking for a place to file a suit against the ban on same-sex marriage, New Jersey was a much more natural choice. “One would believe that New York is more egalitarian than the state of New Jersey, when, in fact, it is the other way around,” says Adam Aronson, staff attorney. “New Jersey has a long history of dealing fairly with issues of civil rights. The courts are not ideological or driven by liberal or conservative agendas. . . . [They are] driven by what is fair and right and just.”
Apart from the issue of marriage, New Jersey does seem ahead of the game, especially when compared to its sister across the Hudson. The Garden State prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations. It was the first state in the country to allow openly gay couples to adopt, and recently granted visitation rights in the event of a breakup.
The Empire State’s openness to the idea of gay marriage may be put to the test sooner than anyone imagined. When the assembly reconvenes in September, member Richard N. Gottfried will again push his bill to legalize queer rites. His measure is a companion to an identical one introduced in June 2000 by State Senator Thomas K. Duane. “There’s strength in numbers,” Gottfried told the 50 couples gathered outside the Plaza that day.
Strength, unfortunately, is exactly what Gottfried’s bill doesn’t have. For 31 years now, the New York State Senate has failed to so much as vote on the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), which would simply amend existing state human rights laws to include sexual orientation. Advocates lay blame for that squarely at the feet of Governor George Pataki, saying he hasn’t kept his promise to get the measure passed.
With such scant progress on basic issues, Gottfried’s push for gay marriage now looks to some like political posturing. “The easiest thing to do in the legislative process is to put your name on a bill and introduce it, and the hardest is to get your colleagues to agree and get a bill passed,” says Joe Grabarz, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. “[The marriage bill] will make for some pretty good dinner conversation, and that’s about it.
“Eventually there will be a legal initiative, but no one wants to waste an effort in a state like this without any defense against the case being overturned,” Grabarz added. “No one wants to build a mansion on sand. You want to build a solid effort on a solid foundation. If you can’t get a law passed granting basic civil rights, that foundation is very weak.”
Gottfried, for his part, admits the bill won’t “sail through.” Still, he says, “the climate here is dramatically better than a few years ago.”
Not better enough for some. “New Jersey, through its legislature, has already accepted gay rights. It has a better track record,” says Grabarz. “New York is way behind the curve—and has a long way to go to catch up to its neighbors.”