Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Marriage on the Horizon for LGBT New Yorkers

With the issue of marriage for same-sex couples in the forefront, JoAnn Shain of Marriage Equality New York expresses hope these unions will soon be possible in the Empire State in an op-ed posted today on EDGE New York.

Our nation made history on Nov. 4 when it elected its first African American president. Hope looms large that a visionary thinker with a progressive mandate will soon be the leader of the free world.

The reality of significant setbacks in our civil rights around the country tempered the elation so many in the LGBT community felt from Obama’s win. Most notable is the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Anti-gay marriage groups introduced this ballot measure in response to the California Supreme Court’s historic ruling in May that legalized same-sex marriage. Spurred by an 11th hour surge of money and support from the Mormon Church, Prop 8 effectively throws into limbo the newly minted marriages of nearly 18 thousand gay and lesbian couples in California.

Bigotry’s sting was felt in other states as well, namely Florida and Arizona, which approved their own anti-gay ballot measures. There are now 30 states with Constitutional bans on same-sex unions. Not to be outdone, Arkansas voters approved a measure designed to bar gay men and lesbians from adopting children.

The good news is that the East Coast is fast becoming ground zero for marriage equality. New York is virtually surrounded by neighboring jurisdictions that offer some form of legal recognition of gay relationships. Connecticut is now the second state after Massachusetts to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. New Jersey, Vermont and New Hampshire offer civil unions, a well-meaning but ambiguous legal construct which falls far short of marriage. Collectively, these states can be said to comprise a "gay freedom trail" of sorts. So where is New York in this mix?

Undeniably, our state has a long and proud tradition of bold leadership in many areas of civil rights. The village of Seneca Falls, for example, was the site of the nation’s first women’s rights convention in 1848, and became the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. Hundreds of New Yorkers traveled down South to help register black voters during the Freedom Summer in 1964. Two of them were murdered for their efforts. New York passed the most progressive abortion law in the country in 1970 that made the state a bastion of safe and legal abortions some four years before the Supreme Court enacted Roe vs. Wade. New York has been in the forefront of allowing non-biological parents to adopt the children they help raise with their same-sex partners through second parent adoption.

By contrast, New York’s leadership in equal marriage rights has been inconsistent, marked by both inspiring highs and disappointing lows.

Following Massachusetts’ lead, Lambda Legal brought a groundbreaking lawsuit against New York City Clerk Victor Robles in 2004 that sought the right to obtain marriage licenses for same-sex couples. State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan ruled in favor of the case, Hernandez vs. Robles, in Feb. 2005. The jubilation felt by New York’s gay and lesbian couples in the aftermath of this stunning victory, however, was short lived because the decision was immediately stayed and quickly appealed by the city’s attorneys. The Hernandez case eventually reached New York’s high court.

The state Court of Appeals ruled against Hernandez, along with similar lawsuits from around New York, in a four to two vote in July 2006. With this decision, the court put the issue of marriage equality squarely in the hands of the state legislature.

Since then, steady progress toward full marriage equality for same-sex couples has been made in Albany. The Democratic-controlled state Assembly voted on and passed a marriage equality bill last year. Governor David Paterson ordered all state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state in May. His directive gave New York the odd distinction of recognizing same-sex marriage without actually providing it for its citizens.

On Election Day, New York voters ushered in a Democratic majority in the state Senate. In doing so, years of Republican control of the Senate came to an end. This change has inspired renewed hope that the marriage equality bill, passed by the Assembly and supported by the governor, will come to the senate floor for a vote in the not too distant future. However, trouble is brewing in the ranks of the fledgling Democratic leadership. A small group of senators who oppose marriage equality are trying to block the rise of Malcolm Smith to the post of Senate Majority Leader. Smith is a staunch supporter of gay marriage who has vowed to bring the marriage bill up for a vote in the senate. Time will tell how this political maneuvering will play out.

If there is anything positive about the passage of Prop 8, it is the inspiring groundswell of support for same-sex marriage it has generated here in New York and across the country. In the past few days, thousands of people have turned out in cities nationwide to lend their voices to the ongoing struggle for full equality for gay men and lesbians. If this trend continues, LGBT New Yorkers have real reason to believe that The Empire State will once again be in the forefront of providing full civil rights to all its citizens.

JoAnn Shain is secretary of the board for Marriage Equality New York. She and her partner, Mary Jo Kennedy, were co-plaintiffs in the Hernandez vs. Robles case.

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