Activist argues that gender-neutral state law enables city clerk to issue licenses
Larry Moss, an out gay attorney and political activist, is leading a one-man charge to get the City of New York to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples just as San Francisco has.
“New York’s matrimonial law does not restrict marriage licenses to persons of the opposite sex,” he wrote in an op-ed piece in Monday’s Daily News, citing a 1997 report of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
Victor Robles, the city clerk of New York, has refused to issue licenses to gay couples. Mike McSweeney, first deputy clerk, cited rules of New York City that they may only give an application to “the bride and groom” who both must be present.
“We read that to be a male and female,” he said, adding, “there is a New York Supreme Court case from Tompkins County in 1997 which held that city clerk correctly refused to grant a license application to a same-sex couple.”
The city clerk is appointed by the City Council for a six-year term.
“We’re underneath the City Council and the Speaker,” McSweeney said.
Asked what they would do if the mayor ordered them to start issuing licenses to gay couples as in San Francisco, he said, “If the mayor said this is what he wants us to do, we’d have to consider it. We have to follow direction from the mayor or the Council. So far there hasn’t been any direction either way.”
Paul Elliott of the Mayor’s press office said in an e-mail, “Legal advisors to Mayor Bloomberg [are] today reviewing state law and they hope to make a recommendation shortly” on the issue of immediately issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Yet, in a story published in the New York Sun on Wednesday, Ed Skyler, spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told the paper, “It wouldn’t be legal. If you’re the chief magistrate of the city you have a responsibility to support the law, not subvert it. What kind of message does it send to tell employees to bend the rules for political purposes.”
Bloomberg is famous for a confused position on the issue, telling gay reporters during his 2001 campaign that “the government has no business telling you who you can marry,” while not directly answering whether gay couples should be allowed to marry here.
The newspaper also reported that “two-thirds of the 21 [City] Councilmembers who responded to a survey conducted yesterday by the New York Sun said they would support legislation or a resolution to legalize same-sex marriages in New York City,” but that most do not want the city to do what Mayor Gavin Newsom did in San Francisco.
But, a Council source told Gay City News that the leadership is “exploring how it might be done,” that is, opening marriage to gay couples now in New York City.
Responding to a question as to whether Council Speaker Gifford Miller would place pressure on the clerk’s office to issue same-sex marriage licenses, spokesperson Alexa Hinton, responded, “Denying same-sex couples the right to marry is unacceptable discrimination pure and simple.”
Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry told the Sun, “The mayor of San Francisco, like Mayor Bloomberg, took an oath to fulfill the constitutional command of equality and has done the right thing, and so should ours.”
In 2002, the Council passed and the mayor signed a bill requiring New York City to recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships contracted elsewhere. It is not known whether that law has been put the test in terms of the city having to extend marital privileges to gay couples married in the Netherlands, Belgium, Ontario, or British Columbia where it is legal.
At least one New York couple did get married in San Francisco over the weekend. Mike Grabowski and Don Vogel of Greenwich Village, who have been together for eight years, were out there on vacation when they heard the news that marriage had been opened to gay couples. Vogel said, “Mike asked, ‘Do you want to do it?’ I decided, we’re here, we don’t need to make a big deal about it, why not just do it.”
They waited in line for four hours outside San Francisco’s majestic City Hall on Friday before being served, noting that there was a lot of “bonding” among the couples waiting. People were being witnesses for each other. A lesbian offered to pay the fee for Grabowski and Vogel if the city wouldn’t take their out-of-state check for the $100 fee.
“It felt great,” Grabowski said, “very affirming.” As to how it will affect their relationship: “It doesn’t feel any different. It shouldn’t. The situation shouldn’t change. It should only get better.”
I feel married now,” Vogel said. “I did register at Williams Sonoma.” He also noted that everybody at his workplace has been “very supportive.”
During Valentine’s Day weekend, a group of activists affiliated with Civil Marriage Trail, a New York organization assisting couples wishing to marry in Canada, traveled to Toronto to witness the weddings of seven gay and lesbian couples.
Moss asserted in his op-ed piece that if the city clerk in New York were to start issuing licenses to gay couples, it is “unlikely” that the state legislature would act to ban them. He was the leader of a successful effort to get the State Democratic Party to endorse same-sex marriage last year.
Assemblymember Dick Gottfried (D-Chelsea), sponsor of a bill in Albany to legalize same-sex marriage, said he has spoken to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver about this issue “and more with his staff and I think his feeling is that the Democratic conference would not want either a marriage bill or an anti-marriage bill at this time.”
If the licenses started to be granted as in San Francisco, Gottfried said, “I believe the New York State legislature would not pass a [Defense of Marriage Act].” He also said he thinks what is happening in San Francisco is “terrific” and “I would hope we could do the same here in New York City.”
Out state Senator Tom Duane (D-Chelsea), sponsor of the gay marriage bill in his Republican-dominated house, is having hearings on the issue in Albany on March 3, bringing in legal experts and advocates to testify about it.
“We don’t have a mayor like Gavin Newsom,” Duane said. Would he like to see Bloomberg do what Newsom did? “I want to win marriage in the fastest and most lasting way possible,” Duane responded.
But Duane is not as sure as Gottfried that the state legislature wouldn’t move to intervene were Bloomberg to do so.
“If I could predict what the state legislature would do, I’d be ready for beatification,” he said.
In Chicago on Wednesday, Mayor Richard Daley, saying he supported same-sex marriage, commented that the Cook County clerk, David Orr, “can do it any way he wants. That would be up to him.” Daley, however, has no authority over Orr and Cook County contains numerous suburban communities in addition to Chicago.
Allen Roskoff, a veteran gay activist who participated in a Gay Activists Alliance zap of the city marriage bureau in the early 1970s, said, “We took over the bureau’s phones and answered them: ‘There will be no heterosexual marriages today. It’s Gay Day at the Marriage Bureau.”
He criticized Bloomberg for not following the San Francisco mayor’s lead.
“Bloomberg makes light of the whole issue,” he said. “Victor Robles should be ordered to issue the licenses to gay couples. Who could stop him?”
Moss has sent out an e-mail appeal urging supporters of same-sex marriage rights to demand it of Mayor Bloomberg, Speaker Miller, City Clerk Robles, all the Councilmembers, and Attorney General Elliot Spitzer.
The Attorney General, a likely candidate for governor in 2006, came out for same-sex marriage in his 1998 campaign, but has yet to issue an advisory opinion on whether New York law allows for it now.