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Lagging Behind In The Fight For Gay Rights

by Andy Humm, Jun 08, 2004
 
 

The modern movement for gay rights was born in the streets of New York's Greenwich Village in June 1969 when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, fought back against a police raid and three nights of riots ensued. That historic rebellion is chronicled in a new book by David Carter and will be celebrated for the 35th time by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Parade down Fifth Avenue on Sunday, June 27th. But in a year of tremendous progress for the American gay movement, New York pegged itself as more of a follower than a leader, while holding the line against some of the severe backlash throughout most of the South and Midwest.

DOMESTIC PARTNER BENEFITS

Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked off Gay Pride Month by vetoing a City Council bill that would require contractors with the city to provide domestic partner benefits to their employees if they provide spousal benefits. The "Equal Benefits Bill" passed on May 5 by a vote of 43 to 5. Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Councilmember Christine Quinn, the bill's chief sponsor, have vowed they will override Bloomberg's June 3rd veto. But they will also have to contend with the mayor's threat to take legal action to prevent the law from going into effect, contending it violates his city charter prerogatives and state law governing municipal procurement. And though the bill had broad religious and corporate support, the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, both of whom have millions in city contracts, opposed it.

While New York City continues to debate the merits and legality of requiring contractors to treat gay partners equally, San Francisco beat us to the punch in 1997 with such a law and got the Catholic Archdiocese there (but not the Salvation Army) to go along with it. San Francisco's law has withstood several legal challenges and is credited with triggering 80 percent of the corporate domestic partner benefits available throughout the country -- because companies not based in the city but who did business with it started extending the benefits to all their employees rather than just those who worked there.

MARRIAGE

New York will also have to follow the lead of another state if it is to catch up in recognizing the marriage rights of same-sex couples. Massachusetts became the first state to marry gay couples legally on May 17. But Governor Mitt Romney invoked a 1913 law, designed to prevent interracial couples from coming to the Bay State to marry, to prevent out-of-state gay couples from marrying there. That law forbids clerks from licensing couples whose marriages would be "void" in their home states, but clerks in a half dozen towns did not interpret the law to prevent them from marrying gay people.

New York domestic relations law expressly voids underage, incestuous, and bigamous marriages, but not same-sex ones. So the lesbian and couples from New York who married in Massachusetts might be able to avoid dissolution of their marriages by Romney. The 1913 law is also being challenged in Massachusetts by both the legislature and gay legal groups.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer opined in March that legal same-sex marriages performed in other states or countries (such as Canada) must be recognized here even though New York does not allow for licensing such marriages here. But as the state's lawyer, Spitzer is opposing a challenge to the marriage law by gay couples including John Shields, the mayor of Nyack, and his partner. The Attorney General professes to be personally supportive of the right of gay people to marry, but is vigorously defending the law that excludes them.

Lawsuits have also been filed by gay couples seeking to marry in Albany, where State Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell of the Upper West Side of Manhattan is a litigant in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union, and against City Clerk Victor Robles in New York City in a case being argued by Lambda Legal Defense, a gay legal group.

All of the New York same-sex marriage cases are expected to work their way through the courts over the next two years and be grouped together before the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

New York State does have the distinction of being one of eleven states that has yet to pass a law forbidding recognition of same-sex marriages. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, has expressed interest in such a ban. Governor George Pataki is opposed to same-sex marriage. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has remained mum on the subject. And while there is a "Right to Marry" bill for gay couples in both houses, sources say that the most likely action in Albany is no action on the issue pro or con. That puts New York ahead not just the 39 states that ban same-sex marriage in law, but the growing number that are moving to amend their state constitutions to limit marriage to man-woman couples.

FEDERAL MARRIAGE AMENDMENT

No state will be allowed to recognize a same-sex marriage if the Federal Marriage Amendment to the United States constitution is enacted. It would define marriage as between a man and a woman and forbid judges from extending marital benefits to gay couples, while allowing state and federal legislatures to create domestic partnerships or civil unions as long as they are not called marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 and signed by President Clinton--and supported by New York Senators Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, and Chuck Schumer, then in the House--prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows the states to do what they want on the issue, including not recognizing legal same-sex marriages performed in other states. Clinton and Schumer still oppose same-sex marriage, but support civil unions and oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment.

President George Bush endorsed the amendment and 60 percent of the American people supported it in the most recent CBS News poll. But United States Senate Democrats recently pledged to block any such amendment. It is opposed by Democratic Presidential nominee Senator John Kerry. Two-thirds of the House and Senate would be required to send the amendment to the states. Three-quarters of the states would have to ratify it for it to become part of the constitution. It is not expected to get out of the Congress, but a vote on it is expected this summer because of a strong push on the issue by the religious right.

VIOLENT BACKLASH

Progress in the gay movement has not come without a price. The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project reported last month that reports of violent attacks against people perceived to be gay, lesbian, or transgendered were up 43 percent here in the second half of 2003 versus the same period the year before. The project cited the historic United States Supreme Court decision overturning sodomy laws last June and the explosion of gay images on television as contributing to the backlash.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

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