Volume 20 Issue 6 | June 22 - 28, 2007

“One new bar will have the ‘play-music-indoors-but-open-all-the-windows’ approach, but I’m confident they’ll become a good neighbor,” DeLaney said. “We always try to settle things in the neighborhood before turning to the authorities.”

Assembly passes gay marriage; Senate remains opposed


In an historic vote late in the evening on Tuesday, June 19, the New York State Assembly approved legislation guaranteeing marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples.

The measure was approved by a vote of 85 to 61 after a floor debate that lasted more than three hours. Four Republicans joined 81 Democrats in supporting the bill. The nays included 38 Republicans and 23 Democrats.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose views on gay marriage were unknown until Tuesday, voted for the bill. He declined to comment in Albany, but a spokesperson told Downtown Express “I think the vote speaks for itself.”

The marriage equality legislation was introduced by Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer on April 27, and sponsored in the Assembly by Daniel O’Donnell, an Upper West Side Democrat. O’Donnell and his partner John Banta were among the plaintiffs denied marriage rights in a ruling last July by New York’s highest court.

“It is extraordinarily important to have actual, real live gay people in the legislative body who can speak to the issue,” O’Donnell said in a telephone interview hours before the vote. “It gets past the esoteric arguments about equality, which are important, but they are not the same thing as saying, ‘I want this.’ It’s not the same as, ‘This is important to me.’ On the floor today, I’m going to talk about John and how we’ve been together for 26 years and about my fear of going out one day and getting hit by a bus and not having taken care of my partner.”

In moving comments on the Assembly floor, O’Donnell spoke of the devastation he felt at age 12 losing his mother to cancer, the person who he thought would teach him how to love. But, he said, “Love found me in the body of a man” his first day of college at the Catholic University of America.

“I could not have survived my late teens and my 20s if I did not have John Banta in my life,” O’Donnell said in the concluding moments of the floor debate. “What I learned from him was that I should love myself. No one believed in me, no one taught me what he has taught me.”

Approval of the measure in the Assembly, even with its overwhelming Democratic majority, marks a dramatic turnaround for the cause of marriage equality in New York, coming less than a year after the Court of Appeals, in a 4 to 2 vote, rejected the claim that the fundamental right to marry recognized in the state Constitution extends to an individual’s right to marry someone of the same sex.

Prior to this week, only in California — where the Senate and Assembly passed a gay marriage bill in 2005, which was vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — has a legislative body in the U.S. affirmatively embraced equal civil marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

“The Assembly said with a big exclamation point that the issue of marriage equality is not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s gay lobby group. “We now have a governor and an Assembly who have stood up very courageously for gay and lesbian families. Now our attention turns squarely to the state Senate.”

The June 19 vote capped a hectic, two-month campaign waged by O’Donnell, other Assembly supporters, ESPA, and the grassroots advocacy group Marriage Equality New York.

Their key goal was identifying more than the 76-vote majority among the Democratic caucus of 108 members, so that if Speaker Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, brought the measure to the floor it would be assured of victory even if no Republicans supported it.

Prior to Spitzer’s introduction of his marriage bill, ESPA and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried had identified more than 40 co-sponsors and 62 aye votes. O’Donnell’s job was to add more sponsors — in the end, at least 54 of his colleagues signed on — and to increase the number of yes votes to some comfortable margin above 76.

Key political leaders were brought into the fight, most prominently Lieutenant Governor David Paterson and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a lesbian who lobbied wavering city Democrats. Advocates this week also sent a call list to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had pledged to lend his support to the effort. Late last month, Quinn said that the mayor frequently asked her what he could be doing.

In a largely decorous debate on the Assembly floor, in which more than two-dozen members spoke, comments returned several times to key questions — whether the law would require clergy or municipal officials to perform ceremonies for gay or lesbian couples against their personal beliefs; whether civil unions could adequately address the concerns the bill aims to meet; and, with widely divergent conclusions, what role religious belief and tradition should play in the deliberations.

O’Donnell said that neither religious nor public officials are required to perform any marriage ceremony under current statute and that nothing would change on that score.

He also talked about evidence emerging from New Jersey’s four-month experience with civil unions, in which both gay advocates and state officials have received hundreds of complaints from gay and lesbian couples who say that employers and institutions such as hospitals have not treated them as spouses, as the law requires.

Several assemblymembers who spoke in opposition focused on religious concerns, none more adamantly than Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat. Holding up a letter from four Jewish organizations urging defeat of the bill, he said he would not change his vote “unless God sends me a message in the next two hours.”

Hikind pointed to recent articles in Time magazine and the Boston Globe that he said discussed the potential legalization of incest.

“Maybe we should include incest in this bill, get it all over,” Hikind said. “It is coming.”

Brian Kolb, of upstate Canandaigua, spoke of his traditional German Irish Catholic upbringing and said, “When we talk about harm or threat, I don’t feel it in a physical sense, but I feel it in an emotional sense. I do feel threatened. I do feel harm… It is a direct challenge to the way I was brought up and what I believe about God. I cannot fundamentally support a bill that tears at my soul.”

In response, Albany’s first openly gay or lesbian legislator, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, whose district includes Tribeca, said, “I certainly grew up in a family that was as traditional as any represented here,” and then pointedly added, “When you talk about things that tear at the soul, I understand that.”

Several supporters of the bill spoke of their religious faith, emphasizing not only that their values informed their support of marriage equality but also the importance of balancing private belief and public responsibility.

Joe Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat, acknowledging that he had come a long way on gay rights in his years in the Assembly, told the chamber that he attended a Catholic university and was steeped in “tradition [that] might have told me this is the wrong thing.” He went on to say, however, “Our lord told me we should love one another and we should treat everybody equally. We should protect each other in this life. What does that mean if we hide behind tradition and use tradition against the very thing our religion taught us?”

Two of the most compelling statements came from the handful of Republicans supporting the marriage bill. Dierdre Scozzafava, who represents a district that borders the St. Lawrence River, said that the “easy vote politically” would have been to oppose the bill and tell her gay constituents in her hometown of 5,000 that she would work to win them civil unions.

But, after a long talk last week with one gay man back home in Gouverneur, Scozzafava said, she realized, “What might be the easiest thing to do politically is not the right thing.”

Teresa Sayward, a Republican from the Saratoga area, explained her yes vote by talking about her 40-year-old son.

“I knew when my son was very young that he was different,” she told a hushed chamber. “Not that he was effeminate or that he spoke differently. It was something only a mother would know.”

Sayward also recalled him coming home from school at age six asking what a “fag” is and why other boys pushed him down on the ground.

The question, she said, “is nothing more than a civil rights issue.”

“Let us search our hearts tonight,” she added.

With Assembly passage secured, marriage equality advocates now turn their attention to the tougher task of moving the state Senate, where Republicans hold a two-seat majority and whose leader, Joe Bruno, from upstate Rensselaer County, has stated his firm opposition, which he reiterated the morning of the vote.

Senator Tom Duane, a gay Downtown Democrat, is sponsoring a marriage bill that is nearly identical to the Spitzer-O’Donnell measure that passed the Assembly, for which he has lined up 18 co-sponsors in the 62-seat chamber.

Nobody expects that bill to make significant headway, however, as long as Bruno stays in charge of the Senate.

Gottfried, saying of the Assembly debate, “I think everyone in the room really understood that we were doing something historic,” held back from making a direct political appeal for a Democratic takeover of the Senate.

“The one thing for certain is that the Senate can no longer say, ‘Where’s the Assembly?’” he said.

ESPA’s Van Capelle took a harder line.

“The Senate leadership has left gay and lesbian families out in the cold,” he said moments after the Assembly vote. “If that leadership is not ready to change that, then our community needs to shop around for new leadership.”

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