For now, same-sex marriage is off the table in New York — and some supporters of the proposed bill to legalize same-sex marriage think that’s fine.
They say they don’t want the bill to be enacted while the leadership of the state Senate is in dispute because they fear that that would make it easier for opponents to get it overturned later on. Some had expected the Senate to take up the bill, which was passed by the Assembly in May, this week. Gov. David Paterson has said that he would sign it if it reached his desk.
“We’re not disappointed,” said Nora Yates, executive director of the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Council. “We want marriage equality to be legal and not be partisan and not be in question. Because of all the confusion, we’re glad it’s not coming up. This is not a partisan issue. It’s people’s lives. We would like marriage removed from the drama.”
Even so, same-sex couples are anxious, Yates said.
“Having marriage equality is a daily issue for them,” she said.
Above the fray
In a statement, Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said that the Senate needs to handle the marriage bill “respectfully.”
“State senators need to know that it is unacceptable to leave Albany without voting on and passing the marriage bill,” Van Capelle said. “Marriage equality is not a partisan issue and should never be used as a political football in the current situation that has caused complete gridlock in our state capitol. Thousands of New York families expect and need senators to immediately figure out a way to work together and start doing the people’s business. ... We expect that marriage will be at the top of the agenda when the stalemate is over and the Senate resumes its business, but only when we are certain that any such vote taken by the Senate is valid and not subject to legal challenge.”
But not everyone who supports the bill is counseling patience.
“We’re very disappointed in the Senate for not taking up the issue,” said Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Albany chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We think that if you look at the recent polls, people in New York state overwhelmingly favor marriage rights. Out there in the community, there is a feeling that if all these other states are recognizing marriage equality, New York is lagging behind.”
Same-sex marriage has been legalized in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. California legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, but it was overturned by Proposition 8, a controversial ballot proposition passed by voters.
A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month found that for the first time, a slim majority of New York voters now support legalizing same-sex marriage. According to the poll, 51 percent of voters support same-sex marriage, versus 41 percent who oppose it and 8 percent who are undecided.
Focus on state level
The push for same-sex marriage rights in New York comes at a time when some gay activists are expressing frustration with the Obama administration. They believe he has reneged on promises to repeal the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and says that states do not have to recognize relationships between people of the same sex as marriages, even if those relationships are considered marriages in another state.
Yates said gay and lesbian New Yorkers are more focused on what’s happening at the state level than the national level.
“People are still very optimistic,” Yates said.
Trimble said it’s impossible to anticipate what the Senate is going to do.
“We don’t have a crystal ball,” Trimble said.
But she said inaction at the federal level has galvanized same-sex marriage supporters in New York.
“That also drives us — the fact that these promises have been made by the Obama administration and he is not fulfilling them,” she said. “If the feds are going to move slowly, New York should step up to the plate.”
Obama recently signed a memorandum extending some benefits to the partners of gay federal employees earlier this month, but it did little to placate critics of his administration’s stance on gay rights.
Carl Bon Tempo, an associate professor of history at the University at Albany who is studying the history of human rights movements in the United States, said that movements for social change are usually marked by incremental progress. The civil rights movement, he noted, spanned decades and in some ways is still being fought today. But he said that the movement for gay rights is nearing its tipping point.
“I have a feeling that in 20 or 30 years, when I’m lecturing on this period, I’m going to be saying that this is one of those game-changing moments,” he said.
Bon Tempo said that the modern gay rights movement began in the late 1960s and made some gains before stalling in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, things began to pick up again, and now, changes are occurring much more rapidly.
“We’ve seen a real movement at the local and state level to codify and protect certain gay rights,” he said. “A larger and larger proportion of the general public are saying, ‘What’s wrong with gay rights?’
“National politicians are a little behind on this,” Bon Tempo said. “They are behind where the people are at.”
Social movements, Bon Tempo said, “are long, drawn-out processes. It’s going to take some time before there is full and equal citizenship for gay Americans.”