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Volume 77, Number 4 | June 27 - July 3, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, who represents part of the Upper West Side, right, and his partner, John Banta.

In an emotional vote, Assembly O.K.s gay marriage

By Paul Schindler

In a historic vote late on the evening of Tues., 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.

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 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 at around 8:30 in the evening, O’Donnell spoke of the devastation he felt at age 12 losing his mother to cancer, the person whom 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 last 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.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a leading national advocacy organization, said that the progress in New York — coupled with the vote last week by the Massachusetts Legislature rejecting a 2008 ballot question that would have overturned marriage equality in that state — reflects “a new chapter” in the civil rights struggle.

“Fresh from the historic Massachusetts victory last week, we now have a state that many thought couldn’t do it, become the second legislative body in the country to step toward marriage equality,” he said. “The fact that states such as New York, California, and New Jersey are so dramatically within reach ought to inspire all of us, gay and non-gay people, funders and allies, to go the extra mile now, and really work for what is now within our reach.”

Wolfson warned, however, that unless the gay community and its allies press well beyond “a business-as-usual, underfunded” marriage equality drive “there are battles that we could lose.”

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s gay lobby group, which worked aggressively since Spitzer’s inauguration to move the legislation, said, “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. 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 of gay marriage, most notably Richard Gottfried, the Chelsea Democrat who first introduced a marriage equality bill in 2002, 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 Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, of the Lower East Side, brought the measure to the floor it would be assured of victory even if no Republicans supported it.

Key political leaders were brought into the fight, most prominently Lieutenant Governor David Paterson and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who lobbied wavering city Democrats.

Advocates last 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 as the bill’s sponsor answered questions from his colleagues, emphasizing 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, Deborah Glick, a West Village Democrat who was the first openly lesbian or gay member of the Legislature, 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.

José Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, explained that “as a Catholic and a Latino, I was raised conservatively,” but said that tradition involves treating “my neighbor just as I would like to be treated.”

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 “a 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 among 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 two weeks ago 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 6 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.

State Senator Tom Duane, an out gay Chelsea Democrat, is sponsoring a marriage bill 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 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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