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New York Marriage Equality Opponents Feeling Outgunned

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday May 20, 2009
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Although it is extremely uncertain that the marriage equality bill introduced by New York Governor David Paterson will find the support it needs to clear the state Senate, the fact that such a bill has passed the state Assembly for the second time in two years--without much in the way of anti-marriage opposition--has some opponents of family equality fretting that the state’s legislature may yet extend full equality to gay and lesbian households.

A May 19 article in The New York Times cited anti-family parity Assemblyman Dov Hikind as saying to fellow opponents of marriage equality, "Wake up! Where are you?"

Added Assemblyman Hikind, "It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and you’re losing--big time."

With marriage equality having matured to the point that the courts no longer invariably need to strike down unconstitutional anti-gay laws, state legislatures--such as those in Vermont and Maine--have begun to provide parity for gay and lesbian families.

New York’s state government has a policy in place to honor same-sex marriages granted in other jurisdictions, but the state has long been eyed as ready to take the step of extending full state-level civil marriage rights to committed gay and lesbian couples.

Religious groups disagree that secular marriage law should allow gay and lesbian families to partake in the protections and obligations of marriage, and what opposition has surfaced in New York is generally framed in religious terms.

But the New York Times article said that support for marriage equality was far and away the message that lawmakers in the Empire State were hearing.

Anti-family marriage opponents, the article said, were in relative disarray, with even the Catholic church caught up in other matters, as church officials focus on opposing new legislation that would make it possible for victims of sexual abuse to pursue civil suits beyond the current statute of limitations.

The New York Times article quoted the New York State Catholic Conference’s communications director, Dennis Poust, as saying, "Frankly, the governor caught us all by surprise when he put this bill out there."

Whereas marriage advocates in California had been the ones caught unprepared by a swiftly-organized and ultimately successful push to repeal exiting marriage rights for gay and lesbian families through a popular vote, in New York pro-marriage advocates have been working steadily for four years to attain the goal of full state-level equality for gay families, the article said.

Federal level recognition is still denied gay families due to the 1996 "Defense of Marriage" Act, or DOMA, which so broadly denies gay families that they will not even be counted on next year’s census.

The article noted that the American Northeast, including four of the six New England states, has turned out to be a region that favors marriage equality, partly because those states have not seen the divisive, bruising battles like California’s Proposition 8, in which voters are pressured en masse to approve ballot initiatives designed to constitutionally roadblock, or even rescind, the rights of target groups.

The anti-gay rhetoric in such battles has come to include claims that religious freedoms will be eroded and children forced to learn about gay marriage as early as kindergarten--claims that family parity advocates say are untrue and unfounded, but which strike chords even with liberal voters, such as those in California, where the anti-family measure squeaked by with a razor-thin majority last November.

In states where anti-gay laws have been struck down as unconstitutional by the courts (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa), as well as states where lawmakers have taken the initiative and furnished gay and lesbian families with marriage equality (Vermont and Maine), veritable floods of gay and lesbian families have rushed to the altar to declare their commitment, or are expected to do so in places where marriage equality is now legal but has not yet taken effect.

Indeed, even in California, where the window of legality for marriage equality lasted only sex months last year, over 18,000 families hastened to wed--families that now face an uncertain legal future.

In other states where marriage equality measures have been debated, doubtful rhetoric has been put forward: Hawaiian lawmakers heard that AIDS rates had spiked in states like Massachusetts as a result of marriage equality, a claim that marriage advocates have labeled untrue.

But in New York, the anti-family rhetoric has centered around religious beliefs that God’s plan provides only for heterosexual marriage, with gay personal intimacy being viewed as "sinful."

The New York Times article cited Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who seemed to long for a chance to see the rights of gay and lesbian families put to a popular vote.

Rodriguez attributed the strong support evinced in the state for family equality to a "lack of a proposition or referendum" targeting the constitutional rights of gays.

Added Rodriguez, "There is a disconnect within the constituencies. Many of them really have no idea how to present their grievances."

Advocates of family parity, by contrast, seem to have figured out how to make the very real grievances of legal discrimination a cogent reality for lawmakers to grasp, with at least one or two state Senators who had previously expressed opposition to marriage equality now appearing to soften in their stances--though without indicating a change of heart so profound that they would vote in support of the measure.

In the Assembly, however, this year’s vote passed the measure by an even wider margin than two years ago, with several Assembly members who voted against family equality now standing for it.

Religious opposition to the measure is inevitably tied to racial issues, since African American churches often oppose marriage equality and Latinos, demographically tending toward Catholicism, hew to the Church’s view that gays are "called" to lead celibate lives without family intimacy.

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Blacks not only oppose marriage for same-sex couples (though they are more accepting of civil unions), but that African Americans do not see the issue in the same light as many White marriage equality advocates--namely, as a civil rights issue.

Indeed, African American leaders have been known to rail against GLBT equality advocates, and proponents of marriage equality especially, for taking the view that legal parity for gay and lesbian families is a civil rights issue.

Meantime, African American political leaders find themselves caught between wishing to uphold and advance personal freedoms and needing to respect the wishes of their constituents.

Such leaders are also mindful of the historic differences--and parallels--between the African American civil rights struggle and that of GLBT Americans.

A May 19 PolitickerNY.com article cited the situation in which pro-marriage state Sen. Bill Perkins finds himself: polls show that his base do not support marriage equality, but Perkins also has to answer to his own conscience.

The article quoted Perkins as saying, "There’s no question that there are moments, in this case and other cases, where we have that thorny dilemma."

Added Perkins, "Many of us who are elected to represent a community will have those moments, and our constituents, whether they agree with us or not, want us to do what we believe is the honest thing to do."

Perkins holds out hope that education around the issue will make a difference in the attitudes of his constituents, and he intends to extend the opportunity for informed discussion; another lawmaker who views education as essential to the issue is state Sen. Eric Adams, who noted, "It’s not so much a failure on the part of the African-American community in embracing it, it’s a failure on our part of not doing a good enough job educating people about what this really means."

Adams referred to the very history that some Black leaders cite in defending marriage equality as a civil rights issue. "I remind my community often that at one time it was illegal for interracial marriages, and illegal for blacks to marry," the article quoted Adams as saying.

"And there were those who were not African-American who were on the forefront" supporting the rights of Blacks in their quest for civil equality.

The article noted that a number of Black lawmakers simply did not show up when the time came for the vote in the state Assembly.

But some of those who were there protested vociferously. During debate in the Assembly, in which Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, the brother of out lesbian entertainer Rosie O’Donnell, was credited with sustaining momentum on the pro-marriage side, family parity as a matter of civil rights was attacked by Democratic Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, an African American, a May 18 Associated Press story reported.

Benjamin insisted to O’Donnell that gays had no business claiming their cause was a matter of civil rights when their ancestors were never slaves brought to America against their will to serve as forced labor.

Gay Blacks might have objected to that argument, but O’Donnell himself had an equally valid point in saying that his own ancestors, upon arriving in America from Ireland, faced civil rights issues in the form of systematic discrimination based upon their nation of origin.

O’Donnell, who is also openly gay and has been in a committed relationship for 28 years, told his fellow Assembly members that his forebears "came here not because it was the land of opportunity, but because the opportunity was supposed to be equal."

O’Donnell also cited religion in his argument, noting, "The most profoundly and deeply religious people in this room are voting ’yes’ tonight because they understand there is a separation of what government and the churches and synagogues and mosques are supposed to do."

O’Donnell didn’t just talk about tradition, institutions, or rhetorical notions: he personalized his message, appealing to his colleagues, "I implore you: please don’t deny me something I don’t have and want to have desperately."

Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican Assemblyman, adopted a popular religious line of anti-family equality argument in saying that children ought to be raised by both a mother and a father.

Fitzpatrick repudiated the very notion that gay and lesbian families deserved equality under the law, declaring, "To say a gay family is just as good as a heterosexual family is to deny a child a mother or father."

Fitzpatrick’s comments offered no solution for heterosexual single mothers and single fathers who struggle to raise their children alone, however.

Hispanic churches, too, weighed in on the issue of civil marriage for all New York families, protesting matrimonial parity at a May 17 rally that took place outside the governor’s Manhattan office. That rally also drew a number of marriage supporters, however.

Marylin Lopez, who demonstrated against civil family equality, cast her objection in biblical terms, proclaiming, "He created man and woman--man and woman should be together."

Added Lopez, "Even though He loves the sinner, He does not agree with a life of sin."

Laura Dukey, there to show support to civil marriage despite the objection of some churches, stated her own view: "I would really just like to talk to them and ask why I don’t deserve equal rights."

One of the state Senate’s own was at a separate rally to object to gay and lesbian families being granted equal family rights under civil law.

Reuben Diaz, who is a minister as well as a state Senator, spoke from a political point of reference when he predicted that lawmakers who stood up for gays might pay a price when it came to Latino voters.

"If we could move people to come here," said Diaz of the rally’s crowd, "we could move people to tell them who to vote for."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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