For one day in New York, heterosexual marriages were banned in the City Clerk's Office. That is because dozens of gay people took over the office in the Municipal Building, across from City Hall, to protest the ban on gay marriage.
This demonstration, in which I participated, took place in 1971 -- two years after Stonewall, and four years after the United States Supreme Court overturned all state bans on interracial marriage. I doubt anybody involved in the protest expected it to get results. This was just another one of the famous zaps by the Gay Activists Alliance, the leading gay rights group of the day. We came with two cakes--one with two grooms on top, the other with two brides- and told callers, "there will be no heterosexual marriages today. It's Gay Day at the Marriage Bureau."
It seems like Gay Day once again. Last week, more than three decades later, we were back at the clerk's office, dozens of same-sex couples lining up for marriage licenses, which were denied them. A few days earlier, demonstrators stood on the steps of City Hall, demanding that Mayor Michael Bloomberg follow the lead of the mayors of San Francisco and New Paltz, New York -- as well as officials in Portland, Oregon and Nyack, New York -- and order the City Clerk to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This time, though, the demonstrators included City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, State Senators Tom Duane and Liz Kruger, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and openly gay New York City Councilmembers Phil Reed and Christine Quinn. (See "Bloomberg Must Speak Up On Gay Marriage" by Quinn)
Gay marriage, which was revived as an issue in the last few years, has suddenly become a serious movement in the past few weeks, gaining momentum every day.
So far, Mayor Bloomberg has refused to open marriage to gay couples, his corporation counsel issuing an opinion last week saying that only man-woman couples may wed under New York State law. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer also issued an opinion that New York State law does not allow for the performing of same-sex marriages.
That New York City lags behind Nyack and New Paltz, never mind San Francisco, should not be surprising to people who know history. Even though the modern gay rights movement began in New York, the city can be oddly backward when it comes to lesbian and gay rights. We did not add "sexual orientation" to the human rights law until 1986, 17 years after Stonewall and long after most major cities. (The state did not pass a gay rights law until 2002!) Domestic partner benefits were not given to lesbian and gay city employees until Mayor David Dinkins settled a lawsuit with gay and lesbian teachers in 1993.
Still, the city with undoubtedly the largest gay population in the nation is, in its own way, making the case for gay marriage. The New York Bar Association has read the state marriage law differently from the recent interpretations, finding it gender neutral. And, as the Gay City News has reported, "Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau told at least one elected official on Thursday that he disagreed with the conclusions of the state attorney general and the city corporation counsel about the legality of same-sex marriage and would not bring criminal proceedings related to such unions." Even Spitzer says he supports same-sex marriage, and, at the same time that he delivered his interpretation of the state law, also said that he believes our state is obliged to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, such as the two provinces of Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium where same-sex marriage is legal. Indeed, we now have a local law recognizing such marriages and civil unions performed elsewhere, which Bloomberg signed in 2002 (though he said he will not apply it to the weddings of same-sex couples in San Francisco and New Paltz.)
The federal government passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and allowing the states to decide on their own whether or not to recognize such marriages performed in other jurisdictions. New York is one of just 12 states that has not passed a state version of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Most New York elected officials have come out in opposition to an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting marriage to a man and a woman, which President George W. Bush recently endorsed. Governor George Pataki and Senators Schumer and Clinton, who all oppose same-sex marriage, nevertheless have come out against the amendment, as have 11 of the 14 members of the House delegation so far, including Staten Island Republican Vito Fossella. Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council also oppose the amendment.
There is some evidence, in other words, that New Yorkers are open to the reality of gay marriage, and the arguments for the simple justice of it.
Marriage carries 1,138 rights and responsibilities with it according to the General Accounting Office. Lesbian and gay couples need that support as much as non-gay couples. That's why thousands of same-sex couples stood for hours in the rain in San Francisco to obtain their licenses. New Yorkers Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter went to San Francisco to get married, Rosie telling the press that they decided to do this after Kelli was forced to testify in Rosie's case against her former publisher last year, having been denied the right of not having to testity that would be given to a legal spouse: "As a result, everything that I said to Kelly, every letter that I wrote her, every e-mail, every correspondence and conversation was entered into the record of this case," O'Donnell said. "After the trial, I am now, and will forever be, a total proponent of gay marriage." It is not all about economic benefits; it is also about dignity, respect, and equality.
Most of the objection to gay marriage is on religious grounds. But what we are fighting for is civil marriage. If the state finally recognizes our civil marriage rights, nothing will change for churches, synagogues, and mosques. The Catholic Church does not marry people who have been divorced, despite civil marriage laws that have allowed it for centuries.
The other common objection is that allowing gay people to marry will undermine the "sanctity of marriage." But, as Nicholas Kristoff wrote last week in the Times, "it seems to me that the best way to preserve the sanctity of American marriage is for us all to spend less time fretting about other people's marriages - and more time improving our own."
Allen Roskoff, who works for the New York State Senate, is a member of the New York Right to Marry Coalition. The views expressed are his own.