June 27, 2011 at 7:30 pm EDT | by Phil Reese
Advocates see New York as a turning point in marriage equality effort

Empire State Building

Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors in time to see marriage equality passed. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

On July 24, New York will become the largest state in the Union to offer same-sex marriage, and in doing so, will change the landscape for marriage equality in America.

On Friday, with a close 33-29 vote, the Republican-controlled New York state Senate approved a marriage equality bill, matching language on the legislation agreed to between leaders in both houses. The bill was signed by same-sex marriage advocate Gov. Andrew Cuomo just before midnight, which sets the official date the law takes effect as July 24.

Evan Wolfson, President of Freedom To Marry, a national marriage equality advocacy organization, sees New York as a turning point in the effort to extend marriage to same-sex couples in the United States.

“It means that the number of Americans living in a state where gay people share in the freedom to marry is more than doubling from 16 to 35 million,” Wolfson told the Blade, Monday. “Because this is New York, people across the country and around the world are going to see and hear the stories that prove that families are helped and no one is hurt when marriage discrimination ends.”

“Over the next 18 months if we do our work right, we can hope to bring other states to the Freedom to Marry, from Maine to Oregon, and others in between,” Wolfson continued.  “But the key in all 50 states is to have the conversations, support the campaigns and continue the national momentum that New York has just boosted.”

Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and D.C., where same-sex marriages are currently licensed, make up approximately 5 percent of the U.S. population. However, with the introduction of New York at the end of July, 11.4 percent of American citizens will live in a jurisdiction that offers marriage licences to all couples, regardless of gender.

This does not include the 5.8 million residents of Maryland, which recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and the 81,406,229 who enjoy most or all of the same benefits and obligations as married couples in Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey and Nevada through Civil Unions or Domestic Partnership registries. Including these states brings the total number of Americans whose states officially recognize and protect same-sex relationships to nearly 40 percent.

With a jurisdiction the size of New York opening up the institution of marriage to all couples, same-sex partners throughout the country will likely be taking advantage of the new law, and the Empire State will become a top wedding destination for New York couples and couples from surrounding states alike.

Among those couples will be Carl Parker and Greg Wysocki of White Plains, N.Y. Parker 43 and his partner Wysocki 46, grew up in D.C. and until 2002, lived in suburban Maryland. They’ve been together nine years and now live in New York state, and both are eager to solemnize the relationship.

“We have a registered domestic partnership with Westchester County NY,” Parker told the Blade, “but plan on going to City Hall in White Plains as soon as possible to file for our marriage license. Our family and friends are so excited for us, they’re battling to be witnesses and a part of the ceremony. We are planning a larger even next year, since many of our friends are international and cant make it to New York in such short notice.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Duane, who is gay, was overjoyed at the bill’s passage.

“I want to commend the incredible leadership and passion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo who made good on his promise to make Marriage Equality the law in New York State,” the Senator said in a statement to the Blade on Monday. “I also want to thank my colleagues in the State Senate on both sides of the aisle, and in the Assembly, who took a courageous stand when it would have been far easier for them to turn away from what I know for many was a difficult issue.”

The law goes into effect on July 24, however, since that is a Sunday, couples are more likely to be able to get their licences on Monday, July 25. New York has a 24 hour waiting period after applying for the marriage license before the wedding can take place, therefore most likely, the first weddings will take place on Tuesday, July 26, barring special exceptions in cases where a judge waives the 24 hour waiting period, or County Clerks find a way to open on Sunday.

Of thirty Democratic Senators, only one voted against the bill, Ruben Diaz who, despite having a lesbian granddaughter, has been a strong opponent of marriage equality since long before voting against the failed 2009 marriage bill.

Of 32 Republicans, four voted for the bill, including Senators James Alesi, Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland and Mark Grisanti. Though the overwhelming majority of the 33 votes in favor of passage came from the Democratic side of the aisle, that four Republicans defected from their party, and that this bill was even allowed by Majority leader Skelos to come to a vote marks a sea change in the fight for extending these rights to more couples nation-wide.

The legislation included some amendments that would reduce the legal liability of religious organizations that refuse to solemnize any of the marriages that would be made legal under the new law. The amendments were added in the Senate on Friday, and before the Senate voted on the law, they were approved Friday afternoon by the lower house, which had already approved the bill 80-63 on June 15. The amendments would also allow non-profits affiliated with religious organizations to refuse to allow their facilities to be used in ceremonies related to same-sex weddings.

One major proponent of the law, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, released a statement on Saturday, the morning after the bill’s passage.

“Today’s passage in the New York State Senate of legislation recognizing the right of couples to marry regardless of their gender is a historic triumph for equality and freedom,” the statement reads in part. “New York has always been a leader in movements to extend freedom and equality to people who had been denied full membership in the American family.”

Many activists noted as crucial to victory the open collaboration between the various groups on the ground in New York. Some of the most visible groups on the front line of pushing public opinion and lobbying for votes were the Human Rights Campaign, as well as New York headquartered groups like Fight Back New York, Empire State Pride Agenda, and Freedom to Marry. Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry had played roles previously in other marriage victories, such as the victory for marriage equality in the District of Columbia, and worked in tandem with the state organizations to create an effective overall strategy.

“We congratulate everyone who worked so hard, with special thanks to Gov. Cuomo, to have New York join us in the District of Columbia as a jurisdiction that recognizes the rights of gays and lesbians to marry,” said Peter Rosenstein, president of Campaign for All D.C. Families. “The fight in New York shows that by working together with victory being the goal, rather than who can claim credit for the victory, LGBT organizations and their allies can be successful.”


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