The news that same sex couples can marry in New York state and that Steve Saland, our district’s senator, had cast the decisive vote reached The Weekender in Amiens, France at 4:57 a.m. June 25 in an email from The Chick in the Black Dress. I was up early to begin the third and last day of a bike tour from London to Paris and for a few minutes was liberated from the obsessive focus on hydration, carb-loading and pain suppression that is the fabric of such extreme endurance events.
As someone not directly affected by the law’s enactment (not waiting to get married in my home state), my thoughts focused on three things. I was proud of Saland and his connection to Chatham. Second, I thought about the “debate” over same sex marriage in my two homes, upstate and down. Finally, I reviewed my own personal journey to supporting the bill and placing it at the top of my list of legislative priorities.
As for Saland, who I already knew to be a serious and thoughtful guy from my stint as senior advisor to a former governor, he took me one step closer to not giving a rat’s a– about the party affiliation of an elected official.
My instant recollection of the debate over the issue of same sex marriage in my two communities was that in 2011, as contrasted with previous years, there hadn’t been much. Most people I had recently discussed the issue with had supported the measure, assigning varying degrees of importance to it. But every day recently spent in Chatham had included at least one robo-call from a “defense of marriage” organization, based in Princeton, New Jersey, whose spokesperson “Brian Brown” succinctly framed his question of whether I believed that “marriage” should be defined as the union of “one man and one woman?” Each of the dozen or so times I responded “No,” Brian the Robot politely thanked me and hung up. After the last of these calls I regretted not having answered “Yes” once to hear what would have followed. I feared that the Robot’s organization might be tallying only “Yays” to bundle and send to lawmakers like Saland as proof that not only God but a majority of constituents were on their side.
I got no such calls in Manhattan for many beyond obvious reasons, not the least being that my Upper Westside district is represented by Tom Duane, who had been New York state’s first openly gay senator. But in Manhattan and all of New York City, we had an omnipresent voice as annoying as Robot Brian, that of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who constantly threatened legislators who would dare vote against same sex marriage. Multi-billionaire Mike, whose current third term in large measure is due to his obscenely massive campaign spending, his reneging on a promise to serve only two terms and to crucial assistance from Christine Quinn.
New York City Council Majority Leader Quinn, a Lesbian activist, reversed her position and shepherded through the City Council a repeal of the city’s two term limit law, while bypassing a popular vote on the measure. Two suspected quid pro quo for Quinn’s about face were Bloomberg’s support for her expected future mayoral candidacy and Bloomberg’s financial support for the same sex measure. Quid pro quo or not, Bloomberg promised to help fund the campaigns of legislators who backed the same sex measure and use his vast financial resources to defeat any legislator that voted against it, regardless of their position on any, or every, other issue. Mike effectively told the lawmakers that they could support capital punishment for truancy and total amnesty for terrorists, yet get his financial support by voting “correctly” for one measure which he (and I) favored.
Thinking about my own personal journey to strong support of same sex marriage, I recalled that to a limited extent it paralleled the articulated positions of my gay friends. In the 70s, many had been openly contemptuous of marital trappings and the trap of traditional heterosexual marriage — pronouncing superior their own more open relationships. In the 80s and 90s, that begin to change in the LGBT community and the demand for the right to marry was voiced increasingly and with growing intensity.
When in 1998, Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Amestoy, an old friend, wrote a landmark decision ordering the Vermont legislature to enact a right of “civil union” in every way, shape and form equal to marriage, I was jubilant, thinking that was a good solution. Label the two forms of state certified relationships with different names, but assure that the legal rights and consequences were equal. This would give everyone all that they needed if not precisely what they wanted. I am a former civil rights lawyer, whose favorite case is Brown v. Board of Education, rejecting the “separate but equal” doctrine that had permitted the racial segregation of public schools. So how could I have thought that way? But I had. Soon after, I started focusing on the predicament of Sharon, my California cousin. Sharon and her longtime girlfriend, Matty, were both lawful custodial parents of my cousin Jesse, to whom Sharon had given birth. They desperately wanted to marry and had gone through a marriage ceremony in San Francisco in 2004 during a brief period when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom disregarded California law and declared same sex marriage lawful within the city by the Bay.
They had legally married in fall 2008, weeks before California Proposition 8 repealed the right which had been granted by a court decision in June of that year. At their wedding in San Francisco, my wife, Jan, and I experienced how important this official recognition of their 26-year union was to them and their teenage son. It meant the world to them. Any residual doubt about the righteousness and importance of marriage equality left me that night.
I believe a similar process must have occurred with many of those directly responsible for passage of New York’s new law. Steve Saland must have had people close to him, for whom this also meant the world. Andrew Cuomo’s girlfriend, Sandra Lee, whose brother is gay, is said to have been a powerful advocate with the governor, who in 1977, had managed the Mario Cuomo mayoral bid. That campaign had infamously featured the “Vote for Cuomo Not the Homo” attacks on the eventual winner Edward Koch. Andrew’s own journey led him to brilliantly shepherd the 2011 marriage equality bill to enactment. Congratulations and thanks governor. I write on the Fourth of July from France and the Americans assembled will raise a glass to Andrew and to many more happy weddings, good marriages and bad and some messy divorces for couples gay and straight.
The freedom to pursue unhappiness and happiness is the fundamental right we celebrate this glorious day.