Thousands March for Gay Marriage

Second annual Wedding March draws advocates, politicians for Brooklyn Bridge trek

Roughly 2,000 people, including several leading local political figures, braved threatening skies and unseasonably cool temperatures this past Sunday for a Wedding March from Lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge to demonstrate support for gay civil marriage in New York State.

This was the second year for the march, organized by Marriage Equality New York, an organization that advocates full and equal marriage rights for same sex couples.

Participants were orderly, led by volunteers armed with megaphones and pink sashes. Chants of “Marriage is love, what is Bush afraid of?” and “What do we want? Gay marriage!” echoed across the East River, as bikers, tourists and strollers made their way in the other direction. Honks of support came from passing cars, including numerous thumbs-up from carloads of observers. Overall, marchers were met with friendly support along the heavily policed parade route across the bridge.

Perhaps the most compelling message came from two marchers whose years together could easily snag them the role of official poster couple for gay marriage.

Sixty years ago, Elmer Lokkins, newly discharged from the army, on his first day in New York, walked up to Columbus Circle with a friend who was showing him the sights. While there, he spotted Gustavo Archilla, and it was the start of “something big” according to Lokkins. For many years, they kept their relationship quiet. But roughly 30 years ago, the president of the university where Lokkins worked was retiring and having a party. One of the deans at the school asked Lokkins, “Well, you aren’t going to bring Gus, are you?” on the assumption he would come alone. Instead, Lokkins did bring Gus, and has been bringing him everywhere ever since.

For Lokkins, who turned 86 two days before, along with Archilla, 89, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in a march supporting civil marriage for gay people is something Lokkins said he thought they’d never see. Along the way across the river, Lokkins offered this advice to advocates for gay civil marriage, “Keep on pushing.”

That was a message that clearly had resonance in a crowd that included marchers from around the world.

Sirkka Jacobsen, who is visiting from Stuttgart, Germany, heard about the march through a newspaper ad. Jacobsen said simply, “We think it’s important that there is equality all over the world.” Numerous couples, many with their kids in tow, also made the trek to Brooklyn to fight for equal rights at a time when the right wing nationwide is waging a full-scale assault on the small amount of progress made to date.

Megan Averell and Lauren Gilker, a couple who first met while attending college in Ohio, brought their new dog to the march. The couple, who have been in a committed relationship for two years, said gaining recognition for legal gay relationships begins with positive personal interactions.

“When you as a couple get to know people, that’s the best ammunition you have,” Averell said.

Adrienne Ellman, a 23-year-old who was born in the city and was marching with a group of friends said, “New York City is behind,” adding, “You’d think New York would be leading the country” on this issue.

A few of the politicians on hand let it be known that they agree with her.

Openly gay Manhattan borough president candidate Brian Ellner said, “If progressive cities like New York don’t push the envelope on this issue, then who will?”

Ellner argued that polling data shows people in the city support gay marriage, but that unfortunately some political leaders lag behind.

Gifford Miller, the City Council speaker who is a Democratic mayoral hopeful, put a finer point on that observation, lambasting incumbent Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg for “using taxpayer money to appeal a February court order that would have given gay New York City residents” the right to marry. Miller said Bloomberg should have obeyed the court order and started issuing marriage licenses right away to same-sex couples.

Miller added that for him personally “as a straight person, it demeans my marriage to have it be an institution that is founded in discrimination.”

Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president who is also hoping to win the Democratic nod for mayor, was also in attendance.

Norman Siegel, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for public advocate and an attorney currently litigating one of the court challenges seeking gay marriage rights in New York, concurred with Miller. The former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union marched across the bridge as lead counsel for the Nyack Ten, a group of couples upstate who are plaintiffs in one of several cases working its way through the state courts. Saying that he believes that full marriage equality is “inevitable,” he said the wave of state constitutional amendments barring gay marriage across the nation represents “a reaction of fear.”

“Civil union is not equality,” Siegel said, referring to the legal recognition adopted in Vermont in 2000 and Connecticut earlier this year. “Analytically there’s no reason why we should give them something less than what everyone else has, so for me it’s marriage” not just civil unions.

Betsy Gotbaum, the incumbent public advocate who is running for re-election this year, was also on hand.

John Shields, the mayor of Nyack, who with his partner Bob Streams is part of the Nyack Ten, said he too believes his case will prevail. Shields said it is critical to somehow get the gay community “fired up” about how critically important this issue is.

But how do fired-up gay marriage advocates fight those who base their opposition to the issue on religion?

Chris Owens, who announced earlier this year that he is running to succeed his father, Brooklyn Rep. Major Owens, when the older man retires from Congress next year, said people opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds must realize that their values are not under assault. Owens said he tells marriage opponents, “We are asking that you understand that your religion is over here, and the rights of people under the law are over here.”

Owens stressed the two are different, saying, “If they come together that’s great, but if not, the rights of the law under the Constitution are first… That’s what guarantees anyone the freedom to believe what they want to believe.”

When marchers had made it across the bridge to the Cadman Plaza Park near the Brooklyn’s courthouses and Borough Hall, they were treated to more speeches and music from performers including the singer Ari Gold. Headlining the speakers was Mayor Jason West, who made headlines last spring by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in his town, upstate New Paltz.

In a fiery speech chastising politicians and even gay rights groups such as the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign for toning down their demands for marriage equality, West said his decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses was “a no-brainer.” Gay marriage, he explained, was “something I had power to do something about.”

“None of us expected the huge media-storm,” he continued. West also said the way to change opinions about gay marriage is by “working in our neighborhoods, our blocks and our villages” and by “talking to the local store owner” as part of an effort to put a human, personal face on the struggle.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Democrat who represents Manhattan’s West Side and portions of Brooklyn, took a different tack from West, emphasizing that working within the political system can make a difference. Nadler said that although John Kerry had flaws, his nominations for judgeships would have been more gay-friendly than the judges named under George W. Bush, a factor that would have worked to the long-term benefit of the gay community.

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