Friday, June 24, 2011

New York: Victory for Human Rights

To the tens of readers, I know politics in the U.S. can be a depressing topic.  Rarely is there any good news, and it is bereft.  Our president stabs us in the back on leaving Afghanistan, refuses to support gay marriage, and the other party is populated by the ancestors of those who tried to destroy this country to maintain ownership of an entire race of people like chattel (and who deep down still think that way today, particularly when telling us why we should be setting up a system of internal passports for anyone who looks remotely Mexican).  Yes, I confess, life here can be rough for a progressive.

However, we do not lose every battle.  Every once in awhile, we win.  Today in the state of New York, we won.

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Gay Marriage Approved by N.Y. Senate

ALBANY — Lawmakers voted late Friday to legalize same-sex marriage, making New York the largest state where gay and lesbian couples will be able to wed and giving the national gay-rights movement new momentum from the state where it was born.

The bill was approved on a 33-to-29 vote as 4 Republican state senators joined 29 Democrats in voting for it. 

As the Senate debated the measure, supporters and opponents from around the state packed into two small galleries overlooking the chamber. When the final vote tally was read, the crowd screamed and hollered, began to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” — and to yell “thank you.”  A minute or two later, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo entered the chamber, the crowd cheered again, rushing the edge of the galleries and chanting the governor’s name. 

Senate approval was the final hurdle for the legislation, which was strongly supported by Mr. Cuomo. The Assembly approved changes made by the Senate, after passing an earlier version last week. Mr. Cuomo was expected to sign the measure soon, and the law will go into effect 30 days later, meaning that same-sex couples could begin marrying in New York by midsummer. “I am very proud of New York and the statement we made to the nation today,” Mr. Cuomo said. 

The bill’s passage followed a daunting run of defeats in other states where voters barred same-sex marriage by legislative action, constitutional amendment or referendum. Just five states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont — permit same-sex marriage. It is also legal in : the District of Columbia. 

The approval of same-sex marriage represented a reversal of fortune for gay-rights advocates in New York State, who just two years ago suffered a humiliating and unexpected defeat when a same-sex marriage bill was easily defeated in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats. This year, with the Senate controlled by Republicans, the odds against passage of same-sex marriage appeared long. 

But the unexpected victory had an unlikely champion: Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who pledged last year to support same-sex marriage but whose early months in office were dominated by intense battles with lawmakers and some labor unions over spending cuts. 

Mr. Cuomo made same-sex marriage one of his top priorities for the year and deployed his top aide to coordinate the efforts of a half-dozen local gay-rights organizations whose feuding and disorganization had in part been blamed for the defeat two years ago.

The new coalition of same-sex marriage supporters brought in one of Mr. Cuomo’s trusted campaign operatives to supervise a $3 million television and radio campaign aimed at persuading a handful of Republican and Democratic senators to drop their opposition. 

For Senate Republicans, even bringing the measure to the floor was a freighted decision. Most of the Republicans firmly oppose same-sex marriage on moral grounds, and many of them also had political concerns, fearing that allowing same-sex marriage to pass on their watch would embitter conservative voters and cost the Republicans their one-seat majority in the Senate. 

Leaders of the state’s Conservative Party — whose support many Republican lawmakers depend on to win election — warned that they would oppose in legislative elections next year any Republican senator who voted for same-sex marriage. 

But after days of agonized discussion capped by a marathon nine-hour closed-door debate on Friday, Republicans came to a fateful decision: the full Senate would be allowed to vote on the bill, the majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, said Friday afternoon, and each member would be left to vote according to his or her conscience. 

"The days of just bottling up things, and using these as excuses not to have votes — as far as I’m concerned as leader, its over with," Mr. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said. 

Twenty-nine Democrats voted for the measure, joined by four Republicans: James S. Alesi of Monroe County; Stephen M.. Saland, from the Hudson Valley area; Roy J. McDonald of the capital region; and Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo. 

Just one lawmaker rose to speak against the measure: Rubén Díaz, Sr. of the Bronx, the only Democratic senator to cast a no vote. 

“God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage, a long time ago,” Mr. Diaz said.

But Mr. Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican who opposed gay marriage when he ran for election last year, said he had studied the issue closely, agonized over his responsibility as a lawmaker, and concluded he could not vote against the bill. Mr. Grisanti voted yes. “I apologize for those who feel offended,” he said. “I cannot deny, a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, the people of my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is, the same rights that I have with my wife.”

The legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States is a relatively recent goal of the gay-rights movement, but over the last few years, gay-rights organizers have placed it at the center of their agenda, steering money and muscle into dozens of state capitals in an often uphill effort to persuade lawmakers. 

In New York, passage of the bill reflects rapidly evolving sentiment about same-sex unions. In 2004, according to a Quinnipiac poll, 37 percent of the state’s residents supported allowing same-sex couples to wed. This year, 58 percent of them did. Advocates moved aggressively this year to capitalize on that shift, flooding the district offices of wavering lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails and signed postcards from constituents who favored same-sex marriage, sometimes in bundles that numbered in the thousands. 

Dozens more states have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, many of them approved in the last few years, as same-sex marriage moved to the front line of the culture war and politicians deployed the issue as a tool for energizing their base. 

But New York could be a shift: It is now by far the largest state to grant legal recognition to same-sex weddings, and one that is home to a large, visible and politically influential gay community. Supporters of the measure described the victory in New York as especially symbolic — and poignant — because of its rich place in the history of gay rights: the movement’s foundational moment, in June of 1969, was a riot against police inside the Stonewall Inn, a bar in the West Village. 

 On Friday night, as the Senate voted, a crowd jammed into the Stonewall Inn, where televisions were tuned to the Senate hours before the vote began.  Danny Garvin, 62, said he had been at the bar on the night of the riot, and came back to watch the Senate debate Friday. On the streets where police beat gay men in 1969, on Friday crowds cheered, as police quietly stood watch. Bernie Janelle, 53, turned to her partner of 16 years, Cindy Hearing, and said, “I’m going to propose to her on Sunday.” 

Senate leaders hoped to limit debate to just a few speakers, angering some on both sides of the issue. Mr. Diaz was repeatedly chided for overstepping the two minutes he was allotted to explain his vote, while Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat, erupted when he and other supporters learned they would not be allowed to make a floor speech. 

"This is not right," he yelled, before storming from the chamber. 

During a brief recess during the voting, Shirley Huntley, a Queens Democrat who had only recently come out in support of same sex marriage, strode from her seat to the back of the Senate chamber to congratulate Daniel J. O’Donnell, an openly gay Manhattan lawmaker who sponsored the legislation in the Assembly. 

They hugged, and Mr. O’Donnell, standing with his longtime partner, teared up. 

"We’re going to invite you to our wedding” Mr. O’Donnell said. “Now we have to figure out how to pay for one." 

Just before the Senate’s marriage vote, lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly also approved a broad package of major legislation that constituted the remainder of their agenda for the year. The bills included a cap on local property tax increases, and a strengthening of New York’s rent regulation laws, as well as a five-year tuition increase at the State University of New York and the City University of New York. 

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Yes, I know, it is not perfect.  Yes, churches can continue to be bastions of bigotry, in spite of this law, and I know that New York is just one state, but it will be (excepting the short time California legalized it) the biggest state to legalize gay marriage to date.  And to those younger folk, perspective is in order.   This is just the beginning.  

With New York as the largest state to legislatively pass gay marriage, many other states will surely follow.  True, for those of us living in the Western world's version of Afghanistan (i.e., the Bible Belt), gay marriage will likely require a Supreme Court ruling, but even that may not be as far off as we think, either.  The more states who legalize gay marriage, beyond just state court rulings making it possible, and with now for the first time a clear majority of Americans in support of marriage equality, it is only a matter of time until our institutions respond to the pressure and expand it everywhere.  

That is right, my dear Christian readers.  It is coming to your town, and hopefully one day to your village and church.  I anticipate the coming apology of the Southern Baptist Convention to the LGBT community somewhere around the year 2234.

Considering where we were at even twenty years ago, this is not a minor achievement.  In 1990, 80% of Americans thought homosexuality was 'immoral.'  Today, 57% support gays in the military and 53% support gay marriage.  Twenty years from now, it will be the norm, to the point that to even think the way the average conservative Republican does today will court the rightful comparisons of those who supported bans on interracial marriage.  It is a beautiful world after all.

And to those few Republicans in the New York Senate who voted in favor of this bill, to be fair, let them receive credit here.

Senator James S. Alesi of Monroe County
     Email: alesi@senate.state.ny.us
     Senate Office Phone: 518-455-2015
Senator Stephen M. Saland, from the Hudson Valley area
     Email: saland@nysenate.gov
     Senate Office Phone: 518-455-2411
Senator Roy J. McDonald of the capital region
     Email:  mcdonald@senate.state.ny.us 
     Senate Office Phone:  518-455-2381
Senator Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo
     Email:  grisanti@nysenate.gov
     Senate Office Phone:  518-455-3240



I know it is easy to discount these people since they are members of the stupid party, but they took a stand, in spite of their own party and warnings from conservatives that their vote would guarantee an opponent in the next primary.  And their stand helped make gay marriage possible in New York.  For that reason alone, they deserve some recognition and support.  If you have the time, contact these senators and thank them.  They need to know that their vote was appreciated.

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