Advocates Convene Marriage Forum

Crowd of 50 turn out to hear from leaders in the state’s drive for gay nups

A town hall meeting that was intended to update the lesbian and gay community on the pursuit of marriage equality drew roughly 50 people to the LGBT Community Center.

“I think most of you know that we’re at a key moment in queer history,” said Richard Burns, the center’s executive director, at the start of the April 19 event. “We’ve had a lot of victories… but we all know that we have a long way to go.”

The forum came in the wake of a March 24 meeting convened by Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that brought some queer community leaders to Gracie Mansion to set strategies for advancing gay marriage rights in New York State. The Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the lead organizer of the April 19 meeting and the statewide gay lobbying group, was pointedly excluded from the March 24 event.

The April 19 meeting opened with presentations from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Lambda Legal, the gay public interest law firm, on the four marriage lawsuits that they, along with other advocates, will argue before the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, on May 31.

“The state and the city have fought these cases pretty hard,” said James D. Esseks, litigation director at the ACLU’s Gay and Lesbian Rights Project.

In February 2005, Bloomberg committed to advancing gay marriage, after refusing to take a position for four years, even as he announced that the city would be challenging a ruling in a Manhattan district court allowing gay marriage.

Eliot Spitzer, the state attorney general and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, has said that, if elected governor, he will introduce a bill in the state Legislature to allow gay marriage. Currently, his office is aggressively opposing gay marriage in the court cases.

Esseks said the plaintiffs in the cases had brought together legal groups, child welfare agencies, hundreds of religious organizations, the American Psychological Association, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Organization for Women, history professors, and many others to submit legal briefs to the court in support of gay marriage.

“It’s an amazing array of support for our position,” he said.

Michael Adams, Lambda Legal’s director of education and public affairs, said that community support was vital to protecting any win that comes from the courts. He recalled an earlier Lambda lawsuit in Hawaii that faltered when the state’s voters passed a constitutional referendum barring gay marriage.

“We had a lawsuit without a movement and a lawsuit without a movement is not going to win,” Adams said.

Much of the April 19 event was concerned with making that point. As speakers informed the small crowd about their work, they also exhorted them to enlist in the effort to win gay marriage in New York State. After hearing from 11 speakers, attendees were invited to join some of the community groups that had set up tables around the room.

“This fight really has to be organized in all parts of the state,” said Alan Van Capelle, ESPA’s executive director.

To date, ESPA has held 15 town meetings on gay marriage across the state, recruited 105 “marriage ambassadors” to lobby their friends and legislators, educated media, and won the support of religious, union, and business leaders on gay marriage, according to Van Capelle.

“Sometimes I think there is a perception that when things quiet down in the press, the mainstream press, that nothing is happening,” Van Capelle said. “I’m here to tell you that we’ve never been busier.”

The crowd also heard from representatives of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Freedom to Marry, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and the Metropolitan Community Church of New York.

Ron Zacchi, the co-executive director of Marriage Equality New York, told the group that his organization would be producing the third Wedding March on June 3. Last year, that event saw more than 2,000 people march across the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan in support of gay marriage. The lawsuits make this year’s march particularly important, Zacchi said.

“People in the courts need to know that the community is behind this movement,” he said.

The speakers all represented groups that also sponsored the town meeting. The additional sponsoring organizations were the New York Civil Liberties Union, Mano a Mano, the National Black Justice Coalition, the National Latino/a Coalition for Justice, and People of Color in Crisis.