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Volume 77, Number 2 | June 13 - 19, 2007

Villager photo by Josh Meltzer

ESPA Marriage Ambassadors Jeff Friedman, left, and Andrew Zwerin, from Rockville Centre, Long Island, with their son Joshua at Equality & Justice Day in Albany on May 1.

Ambassadors are representing the face of marriage

By Chris Lombardi

Edith Windsor has vivid memories of a rally at the Lesbian and Gay Center on Feb. 7, 2005. It was three days after a judge had ruled, in Hernandez v. Robles, that New York City was violating the state’s constitution by refusing to marry same-sex couples. Mayor Bloomberg had then instructed the city to appeal the decision, instead of issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, like the 100 or so that filled the room at the Center.

The crowd was chanting angrily. Windsor, a 77-year-old retired computer programmer who lives in Greenwich Village, remembers thinking, “We are running out of time.”

By “we” Windsor meant herself and her love of 40 years, Thea Spyer. In the years since 1965, when Spyer, a psychologist, proposed to Windsor on bended knee, Spyer, now 75, contracted multiple sclerosis and become a quadriplegic.

The couple lived a full life in their home at One Fifth Avenue, Windsor serving on the board of SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) and Spyer continuing her private practice despite her limitations. But the question of their legal status still rankled. For New York City to challenge a judicial order that might have allowed them to marry just seemed wrong.

So Windsor became one of the first “Marriage Ambassadors” trained by Empire State Pride Agenda, a Chelsea-based gay rights political action committee. Along with 100 others, she began to tell her story, and Spyer’s, to community groups, churches and the media, along with publishing a few key talking points about civil marriage for same-sex couples. 

ESPA’s Marriage Ambassador program was founded in early 2005 to educate the public, as the decision on Hernandez v. Robles was moving up the court system, about the realities of life for lesbian and gay families. At first, the campaign’s 100 volunteers spoke chiefly in nonpolitical contexts, such as churches, living rooms and schools. But ever since July 2006, when the New York State Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiffs in Hernandez, the Ambassadors have become political organizers — turning up in Albany for ESPA’s May 1 Lobby Day, and organizing others to keep up the pressure.

The Ambassadors, now 324 strong, have already seen their efforts bear some fruit: May 2007 saw ESPA’s largest Lobby Day ever, while some legislators have found themselves persuaded to sign onto the new gay-marriage bill sponsored by Governor Eliot Spitzer, State Senator Tom Duane and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried. 

ESPA, founded in 1990 as a merger of two L.G.B.T. legislative-action groups in the state, had long been promoting legislation to protect same-sex couples, along with its successful campaigns on hate crimes legislation and employment discrimination. But after 2004, when equal-marriage lawsuits were filed in New York, ESPA’s leaders saw a need for a greater dialogue. 

Nora Yates, ESPA’s field director, told The Villager that her group originally created the Marriage Ambassadors project to create a new narrative, countering those offered by right-wing radio and churches.

“We knew the [Hernandez] decision was coming,” said Yates. “We needed to have a chorus of voices around the state, talking about their lives to friends and family, their church….” So ESPA began to enlist sympathetic pastors, in its Pride in the Pulpit initiative, and trained its first Ambassadors at houses of worship, including the Upper West Side synagogue B’nai Jeshurun. 

The first group of Ambassadors, including Windsor, then fanned out to families, churches and the media with one simple message: that gay and lesbians have families like anyone else. In addition to gay couples like Windsor and Spyer, the corps includes single gays and numerous straight allies, such as Linda Hellman of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. A longtime activist in civil rights and antiwar protests, Hellman told The Villager that she joined PFLAG 10 years ago, when her son John came out. She added that at first, she went to meetings for the support; but the more she learned, the more she felt the old activist energy coming back.

“I thought, how do I tell my son, ‘I’m sorry, you don’t have the same rights as your brother and sister?’ ”

That question took on greater urgency after July 2006, when the New York State Court of Appeals rejected Daniel Hernandez, along with dozens of other plaintiffs in three separate lawsuits. The decision listed numerous possible grounds for a denial of equal marriage to same-sex couples, and refused to open that door.

“After the decision, some of the air went out,” confirmed PFLAG’s Hellman. 

Agreeing, “That was a dark time,” ESPA’s Yates said that nonetheless, many of the Marriage Ambassadors spoke that day at rallies around the state, from Buffalo and Rochester to Greenwich Village. And then they dusted themselves off and began to organize. 

Hellman, for one, was prepared to begin to exert pressure on Albany.

“Either way, it was going to the Legislature,” she said. “We’ve been to Albany three times, and each time it gets a little better.” 

Windsor was similarly galvanized.

“At times I’ve spent something like 24 hours on the phone,” urging people to contact their elected officials, she said. “And the day of the [May 19 Wedding March] across the Brooklyn Bridge, I even tried to give a flier, with phone numbers to call, to [Councilmember] Rosie Mendez!”

Windsor also contributed highlights of her and Spyer’s 42 years together to a Marriage Ambassadors “Family Album.”

“I couldn’t make it to Albany this year,” she said, “but people called me and said they were looking at the photos, and crying.” 

Hundreds of others did make it to ESPA’s 2007 Lobby Day on May 1, including most of the Ambassadors and many pastors from Pride in the Pulpit. Hellman said she spoke to legislators “parent to parent,” as did many PFLAG members who came with her.

“When we were up in Albany, I [explained] to the politicians — ‘Our kids came out, now we’ve got to come out,’” Hellman said. “It’s not enough [for parents] not to kick your kids out. Now we have to fight for their civil rights.” 

Over all, said ESPA’s Yates, it is not easy to quantify the effects of her Ambassadors. But one key legislator, she said, has admitted that meeting with gay families and with Pride in the Pulpit pastors made a real difference. 

Ron Canestrari, a moderate Democrat representing Albany and Saratoga, didn’t receive ESPA’s endorsement in 2006, despite his support for many of ESPA’s initiatives, because he had said he would not advocate equal marriage rights. But, Yates said, “He met with some of our same-sex families, looked at our photo albums, and talked to some ministers, and he changed his position. He was on the Albany N.P.R. affiliate, talking about it!” 

Still, with less than a week left in the state legislative session, all involved told The Villager that the task before the Ambassadors was not going to be easy. Yates said that her program, which will include in the fall three new organizers co-sponsored by the New York Civil Liberties Union, has few illusions that equal marriage will be achieved this year.

“Now, our Ambassadors are heading up Local Marriage Action Teams,” Yates said. “They know we have a lot of work to do.” 

Edith Windsor keeps working the phones. But this spring, she and Spyer decided that they couldn’t wait any longer. With the help of three of Spyer’s home-care attendants, the couple flew to Toronto on Memorial Day weekend.

The judge who married them, Windsor told the Toronto Globe and Mail, said that “we had married for all the people who died before same-sex weddings were possible.” Telling the story to The Villager, Windsor’s voice was gentle, as she spoke of New York’s slow path.

“When California was the first state to drop the miscegenation [laws against interracial marriages in 1947], it took 20 years until the Supreme Court did the same,” she said. “It might be the same now.” 

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