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Annual Equality & Justice Day Focuses on Marriage

The Empire State Pride Agenda had its biggest lobby day ever in Albany on May 8 as 600 people from Suffolk to Buffalo—some of them representing political, religious, union, and social service groups—tried to build support in the state Legislature for same-sex marriage, a stalled anti-bullying bill, and the long overdue inclusion of protections for people of transgender experience in the state human rights law.

“Your presence here matters,” out gay Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, the West Side Democrat and a plaintiffs in one of the four gay marriage lawsuits headed to the state’s highest court later this month, told the crowd. “Everything in politics is cumulative.”

How much difference the lobbying made in terms of new support for the Pride Agenda’s three top priorities has yet to be tabulated.

“We’re just beginning to go through this information and haven’t decided on how to use it or what to make public,” said Joe Tarver, spokesperson for the Pride Agenda. He did note that when legislators announce their support for same-sex marriage, their names are posted on the group’s Web site and that Assemblyman John Sabini, a Democrat from Queens, will be added as a direct result of Monday’s lobbying.

Legislative leaders who addressed the Equality and Justice Day participants were mixed in their commitments to the day’s agenda.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Lower East Side Democrat, cited many gay bills over the years, including the Dignity for All Students Act to combat bullying, that were passed by his house and denied a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. But when he was asked by Gay City News about plans for a vote on a same-sex marriage bill and another to add “gender identity and expression” to the human rights law, all Silver would say is, “We will take it up in conference,” where the Assembly majority Democrats decide in private on what to bring to the floor. Asked about his personal support for these measures, Silver’s answer was the same.

For the first time, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican from upstate Saratoga Springs, spoke to the lobbyists, citing the progress his body has made, but noting that “we are not going to agree on everything.” Bruno, an Italian American, said, “We were dagos, guineas, and wops. I grew up with that my whole life. So I learned about equality and justice.”

But he later said he would not commit to an anti-bullying bill that included gender identity and expression, or as he put it, “transvestites.”

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Pride Agenda, said that Bruno’s comments showed “we have more work to do talking to legislators about transgender issues.”

The gender issue is what has separated the Assembly and the Senate in their approach to a bullying bill for years. For the first five years in his position as majority leader, Bruno blocked gay-related issues from coming to a vote on the Senate floor, relenting in 2000 to allow for the successful passage of a hate crimes law that included protections based on sexual orientation. Two and a half years later, the Senate finally voted on a gay rights law, which passed easily on its first tally.

Silver and Bruno seem content to let the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York, deal with the marriage issue before they do. Silver won’t say what his position is, though he has committed to block any attempt to pass a state Defense of Marriage Act to ban same-sex marriage. Bruno said marriage should only be between a man and a woman, but is open to a civil union bill “depending on how it is worded.” He told Gay City News, “As I have aged, I have come to understand that tolerance is more important than confrontation.”

The state’s high court hears four same-sex marriage suits on May 31 and is expected to issue a decision this summer, but the recusal of Associate Judge Albert Rosenblatt in the case may have lessened chances for a successful outcome (see related story on page 1).

Van Capelle said that the Pride Agenda had not yet adopted an official position on what to demand of the Assembly and the Senate if the court does not move decisively for or against same-sex marriage but instead orders the Legislature to equalize rights for gay and lesbian relationships without stipulating marriage. That is what happened in Vermont when a 1999 ruling by that state’s Supreme Court led to a civil union law the following year.

But Van Capelle emphasized, “Nothing but marriage will allow gay people to be treated equally.”

Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the candidate for governor leading widely in all polls taken to date, was received like a rock star by the lobbying crowd.

“Marriage equality is what the law should be,” he said to a standing ovation.

His anti-gay arguments fighting to limit marriage to man-woman couples in briefs filed with the Court of Appeals for the May 31 hearing (see related story on page 4) were not cited by Pride Agenda leaders nor the vast majority of the lobbyists. Many in the crowd were more interested in getting his autograph, shaking his hand, or having their pictures taken with him than in arguing with him.

Murdoch Matthew of Queens, who married his husband Gary Paul Gilbert in Quebec, said he confronted Spitzer about his briefs on behalf of the state against same-sex marriage and “he gave me that hard, plastic smile and said it was because his office served all state agencies.”

Van Capelle said that the crowd was enthusiastic about Spitzer because “they understand that to have a governor who is in favor of marriage equality, who is in favor of a marriage equality bill, and will support and introduce it is a big deal in New York.”

Spitzer came out in favor of same-sex marriage in his first run for attorney general in 1998.

Meetings were set up with the offices of 82 legislators, including Senator Michael Nozzolio, a Seneca Falls Republican who is a sponsor of a state DOMA.

“My partner Debbie and I met with him and he was surprisingly responsive,” said Kitty Moran. “He seemed genuinely surprised that we have to pay taxes on health insurance [from domestic partners]. He said he’d educate himself further and we pledged to follow up with him.”

The couple did not receive any commitments on support for their agenda.

Some participants, such as Cathy Marino-Thomas, co-executive director of Marriage Equality New York, and her partner Sheila Marino-Thomas, brought their whole family to Albany. The Marino-Thomases lobbied with daughter Jackie Rose in tow.

Reverend Nate Walker, a Unitarian minister in Manhattan and White Plains, met with the chief of staff to Senator Vincent Liebell, a Brewster Republican.

“We told him that [my partner and I] were spat on for being a couple on the F train and thought of moving to Massachusetts for marriage equality,” Walker said. “He asked if they legislated for gay marriage, would bestiality be next? I told him he had a thousand Unitarians in his district who disagreed with his position.”

Rae Sabatino, with her son Michael Sabatino and his husband Robert Voorhees, who married in Canada, was making her first lobby trip to Albany for gay rights.

“I want the same for them that everyone else has,” she said.