Now that the New York Court of Appeals has ruled that only the state Legislature can open marriage to same-sex couples, roughly 100 activists gathered at the LGBT Community Center on Wednesday evening for a forum to exchange ideas on how to make that happen. Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, which convened the forum, released a scorecard on state legislators showing very modest signs of solid support, but a lot of undecideds. He acknowledged that this campaign “is not a slam dunk,” but invited all activists to put their resources and methods for getting it done into a “toolbox.”
“No one group owns this issue,” Van Capelle said.
According to the scorecard, available online at http://www.prideagenda.org, in the Democrat-dominated 150-member Assembly there are 34 members for marriage equality, four leaning in favor, 89 undecided, and 24 firmly against. In the Republican-led Senate, out of 62 members, no one in the majority supports the issue, though 14 Democrats do. There are 25 undecideds in the upper chamber, two leaning against, and 21 firmly against.
Polling of voters regarding same-sex marriage shows it enjoys the support of a majority of New Yorkers, but Van Capelle said the Legislature doesn’t usually act until support for a new idea reaches 70 percent, a level currently enjoyed by civil unions, not marriage, for gay couples.
“This is not a moment,” said Carmen Vasquez, Van Capelle’s deputy at the Pride Agenda, “it is a movement.” She noted that people sacrificed and died in the African-American civil rights movement and that this one is going to be “a long slog.”
While Eliot Spitzer, the Democratic nominee for governor who enjoys a wide lead in the polls, has promised to introduce a program bill for marriage equality, Van Capelle said “candidates will only do what they are pressed to do” and urged everyone to write Spitzer about the importance of the issue. The Pride Agenda has already collected 30,000 cards calling for equal marriage rights that they are trying to decide how to present to the new governor.
“We should force him to deal with this issue,” Van Capelle said. “We expect action this coming year.”
He will also press Spitzer to highlight the issue in his inaugural and State of the State speeches next January.
In response to a question about asking for an executive order recognizing out-of-state gay marriages, Van Capelle said his group would consult with gay legal groups to determine how much a new governor can do unilaterally and then ask for all that can be gotten. Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal’s lead attorney on the state gay marriage lawsuit rejected in July, said that New York is still obligated to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, despite the ruling in the Hernandez case.
Journalist and activist Ann Northrop, who moderated the forum, asked, “Okay. What are we going to do?” and an eclectic mix of ideas for framing the issue and winning votes emerged from activists from labor, political, religious, and student groups.
Dick Gottfried, the Chelsea Democrat who is the chief sponsor of the Equal Marriage Bill in the Assembly, sent an aide who talked about their request to Helene Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, to hold hearings on the bill. That idea was picked up by the Pride Agenda and other groups who will be pursuing it later this week.
Robert Voorheis, co-director of Marriage Equality/NY, said he sent his 2003 wedding invitation to all of his elected representatives and while he didn’t get any RSVPs, “When I met with my state senator, Nick Spano, he remembered it and said he thought we were joking.” Voorheis, who married Michael Sabatino in Canada, said, “They need to see the love in our families.”
Dr. Tom Moulton, married to Brendan Fay in Canada, suggested sending all legislators “Tying the Knot,” a film on the issue. There were calls for making the issue more important to non-gay people, especially straight couples getting married who might use some aspect of their celebration to highlight what some of their friends are barred from sharing.
Tom Henning, a high school teacher from Harlem, said that unlike Jim McGreevey, “I am an angry gay American,” and called for direct action to show the public how angry the community is about being denied marriage equality. While he lamented that at 41 he represented about the average age in the hall, there were a good number of Point Scholars on hand—LGBT students attending area colleges.
Activists Sebastian Maguire and Gary Gilbert have decided on their own to pick up the fight for a City Council resolution supporting marriage equality. Out Speaker Christine Quinn said the votes weren’t there for the two-year-old measure, so these men have begun surveying the Council on their own and invite people with knowledge of their councilmember’s stand to e-mail them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
The three elected gay and lesbian legislators were not able to attend the Center meeting, but talked with Gay City News about how the campaign is going. Council Speaker Christine Quinn convened a gathering among them on the issue recently and is also expected to provide guidance on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s involvement in the campaign.
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a West Village Democrat, said the community has to press the new governor to fulfill his commitment to support a marriage equality bill. “It would send an important signal from the executive branch and shift the dynamic in the Legislature,” she said. Glick is also concerned that the anti-gay decision of the Court of Appeals, with its emphasis on the protection of offspring of traditional heterosexual couples, will endanger the rights of single people to adopt and is looking into what may need to be done to protect their rights.
Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, an Upper West Side Democrat and a plaintiff in the marriage suit, said that he and the other out gay elected officials have been meeting to strategize on the bill. “Deborah and I are insiders,” he said. “Advocates can be purists. Lobbyists can’t be purists. But we need people to play all three roles to win.”
Tom Duane, a Chelsea Democrat, the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said, “We’ve all pledged to work as hard as we can on a common strategy.”
Gottfried, who is not gay, said, “I’m greatly encouraged that the Pride Agenda says marriage and getting a vote in the Assembly next year is their top priority.”
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has repeatedly deferred comment on the marriage issue, saying the scheduling of a bill depends on what his Democratic conference wants to do, a process that Gottfried said won’t entail as much a vote as a discussion and an attempt to reach consensus on the viability of the bill.
“It’s not going to be an easy lift,” he said.
Queens activists are rallying on Thursday, September 28 on the issue at 7:15 p.m. at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, 37-06 77th Street. That same night, the Pride Agenda is holding a “marriage ambassadors” training at the LGBT Community Center at 6 p.m.
Van Capelle said his group wants to bring activists together on a regular basis to compare notes.
“This is a good first step,” he said. “Strategies won’t come from a boardroom, but from the community.”
The Pride Agenda is going to establish a list serve online for the continual sharing of ideas and results.