NYS Marriage Coalition Takes Shape

At Center meeting January 4, 100 advocates pledge coordinated effort to build visibility

The top players in the push for same-sex marriage in New York gathered for a town hall meeting on January 4 at the LGBT Community Center in an effort to form a new broad-based coalition to advance the issue.

The jury is out on how loose or tight a coalition it will be, but this meeting, attended by about 100 people, at least began the dance that could lead to one.

“We’re gearing up in 2006 so that we can win marriage equality in 2007,” said Ron Zacchi, co-executive director of Marriage Equality NY which convened the meeting. “One of the major things we need to do is speak with one voice.”

The best hope for opening marriage to same-sex couples in New York State is seen resting with five lawsuits working their way through the state courts. A suit filed against the New York City clerk won a lower court victory last February, but was successfully overturned in the Appellate Division by Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor, however, told Gay City News in December that he hopes he loses at the Court of Appeals if the state’s highest court agrees to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal of the intermediate-level reversal.

Three cases that lost at the trial level upstate have been heard by the mid-level court in Albany that has yet to rule, though arguments there were said to have gone better than they did in Manhattan. A fifth case upstate has yet to be heard by the Appellate Division.

It is assumed that the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest, will take one or all of these cases on appeal, but that is not guaranteed nor is the outcome. The seven-member court has just three judges picked by Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo, one of whom, George Bundy Smith, a liberal, has a term that expires in November. The only African-American on the Court, Smith could ask Republican Governor Pataki to reappoint him, but he would still have to retire in 2007 when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. It is more likely that the governor, tacking to the right in a bid for the Republican nomination for president, will replace Smith with a conservative.

Among those at the meeting was Mayor John Shields of Nyack, a plaintiff in one of the cases, who has with others been urging the marriage movement to raise the visibility of the issue in order to create an atmosphere in New York more conducive to a favorable ruling by the high court.

Shields urged a strategy of being harder on politicians such as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opposes same-sex marriage, and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who ostensibly supports the right of same-sex couples to marry but, like Bloomberg, is in court fighting against that right. The two Democrats will both likely be on November’s ballot—Clinton definitely seeking reelection, Spitzer presumably as candidate for governor. Shields also stressed the need for the new coalition to be statewide in focus and planning.

Last month, Anthony Crowell, Bloomberg’s counsel, told Gay City News, with the mayor sitting by his side, that Bloomberg would be convening “a legislative meeting” with LGBT leaders “in January” to discuss strategy on marriage and other issues. At the December interview, the mayor specifically pledged to “testify” before the State Legislature for a gay marriage law should the plaintiffs’ court effort fail. The meeting Crowell promised has yet to be scheduled.

Dirk McCall, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, invited the advocates to join the group at the Center on January 25 at 8 p.m. when Spitzer will be seeking the group’s gubernatorial endorsement. Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Spitzer rival who does not support opening marriage to same-sex couples, is also expected at the Stonewall meeting. McCall stressed the need for both candidates to see “new faces” when they come to these forums in order for them to take the community seriously.

The Empire State Pride Agenda, whose director of community organizing, Elisabeth Bullard, shared that group’s strategy for winning marriage, including the recruitment of “marriage ambassadors” to promote the issue at the grassroots level and the expansion of its Pride in the Pulpit program engaging clergy support. ESPA also plans to conduct a massive lobbying effort of state legislators in their district offices this year. Bullard emphasized that the group coordinates its efforts with Lambda Legal, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NYCLU, the major groups arguing the court cases.

The Reverend Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York and a veteran in this fight, said that her denomination is in a good position to coordinate a nationwide effort around the marriage issue, but that she wanted her congregation to be part of a meaningful coalition in New York no matter who leads it.

Like many MCC pastors, Bumgardner will be leading her members who want to marry legally to the city’s Marriage Bureau once again on February 14, national Freedom to Marry Day—as well as Valentine’s Day—and invited the community to make it an action larger than just MCC.

“We need a plan to work and strategize together,” she said, publicly asking what the “impediments” to collaboration were, but not really getting an answer.

Miriam Yeung, director of public policy for the Center, told the assembled, “I’m not clear on what ‘joining the coalition’ means.” She also said that there was a great need to involve mainstream non-gay groups including labor if the campaign is to prevail.

Ann Kansfield, whose father lost his job for performing her wedding to her partner, said, “This coalition has to be everyone, not just the professional homosexuals.”

“I’m leaving frustrated,” Bumgardner said.

But Cathy Marino-Thomas, co-executive director of Marriage Equality NY, said a follow-up meeting, again with the major players, was scheduled for the evening of January 11 as Gay City News was going to press.

“We’re beginning to identify which groups will do what,” she said. “Each group will coordinate whatever it is doing on the issue with the others.”

Marino-Thomas is hopeful that the result will be an efficient and effective coalition.

For updates on the issue and meetings of the coalition, go to MarriageEqualityNY.org.

Nyack Mayor John Shields, a plaintiff in one of five same-sex marriage lawsuits pending in New York State, urged a gathering of advocates last year to push hard to increase the issue’s visibility statewide.

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