Gay and Lesbian Couples Headed for City Clerk’s Office
Following a week of community organizing, meetings, and demonstrations, gay and lesbian residents of New York City prepared on Thursday to take their first organized direct action to press for same-sex civil marriage rights.
At least 50 same-sex couples are expected to line up at the office of the City Clerk in the Municipal Building early on March 4 to apply for marriage licenses.
Meanwhile, across Centre Street immediately northeast of City Hall Park, a group of demonstrators, which organizers hope will number in the thousands, will be voicing their support for those seeking licenses and calling on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to direct City Clerk Victor Robles to begin complying with the requests from same-sex couples.
During a meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on Monday evening, couples planning to participate and organizers of the action reached a consensus not to engage in civil disobedience, an option strongly weighed at an overflow gathering of community members the previous Friday evening.
Instead, upon being denied a license, the couples plan to exit the building to join protesters across the street.
“I found the analogy to civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement compelling, but this is the time for a first step,” said Elisabeth Jay, who plans to participate in the action with her partner Kathryn Jay. “And I think the Civil Rights Movement took first steps as well… civil disobedience should be part of a full arsenal and it should be directed to whomever is appropriate.”
The action was organized by New York Marriage Now, an ad hoc committee comprised of longtime activists, several of whom were once affiliated with ACT UP, the AIDS activist organization born in the 1980s.
New York Marriage Now came about when independent activist Andrew Miller disseminated a call via email to friends and associates.
“I was able to call on a core of people with whom I worked in ACT UP and at Outweek [magazine],” said Miller. “We were able to pick up where we left off.”
The day’s events will occur on the heals of extensive planning sessions during a week that saw President George W. Bush announce that he would support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and Jason West, mayor of upstate New Paltz officiate at 25 same-sex civil marriages in that city.
The sentiment within many pockets of New York’s lesbian and gay community was that action needed to be taken here immediately.
Last Sunday, Marriage Equality New York (MENY), a six-year-old organization lobbying for legally recognized same-sex marriage, conducted a press conference on the steps of City Hall to demand that the mayor order the city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Hundreds attended the press conference, with a sizeable contingent unable to get through security and were stuck outside in City Hall Park. The Gay Men’s Chorus sang.
“Allowing same-sex couples to marry will strengthen this institution [of marriage],” said Tim Cravens, political director of MENY.
“When we look to the mayors of San Francisco and the Village of New Paltz, we applaud their courage to say ‘no’ to discrimination, as they marry committed couples who no longer want to spend another day as ‘legal strangers’,” said Connie Ress of Marriage Equality USA, the national entity of which MENY is a chapter.
The highlight of the press conference was an appearance by City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-East Side) who joined the call on Bloomberg to direct Robles to issue marriage licenses.
“In a city of tolerance, diversity and unity, it is past time that Mayor Bloomberg give the basic, fundamental civil right of marriage to same-sex couples,” Miller said. “It is simply wrong that a gay or lesbian couple who have made a lifetime commitment to each other do not have the same right to… marriage that my wife and I have been privileged to enjoy,” Miller added.
Openly lesbian and gay elected officials Senator Tom Duane and Councilmembers Christine Quinn and Philip Reed spoke, joined by straight elected allies — state Senator Liz Krueger (D-East Side), Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Chelsea), and Councilmember David Yassky (D-Park Slope). Gottried and Duane are sponsors of a same-sex marriage bill in the New York state legislature.
Also speaking were Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Reverend Pat Baumgardner of Metropolitan Church of New York, and representatives from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
Several couples were on hand to tell their own stories.
Andrew Berg and Dominic Pisciotta, a couple of six years, held their infant children and addressed the crowd.
“Look into my eyes, Mayor Bloomberg, look into the eyes of my children,” said Berg. “And then tell the New York legislature, George Pataki, and George Bush that the marriage law needs to be clear and that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to the same rights and protections guaranteed to any married, heterosexual family.”
Gay marriage advocate Brendan Fay and his partner Thomas Moulton, who traveled to Toronto last July to get legally married, proudly held up their certificate of solemnization. They said they want their union to be recognized here in New York.
“We are deprived of a thousand and forty-nine federal rights,” said Fay.
Shirley Weiss, with her domestic partner of two years, Barb Morrison, said “We’re here because this is supposed to be an advanced city. That’s why a lot of us came to New York. And now it’s starting to turn into a mall.”
“Get on the train, Mayor Bloomberg, the time to make history is now,” said Duane. “You better step up the plate and give us the right to marry now.”
“It’s not a question of should we? It’s a question of why not?” said Reed. “This is the right time for us to be doing this in the city of New York.”
When Quinn took the podium to introduce Speaker Miller, protesters frustrated at being made to wait on the sidelines, began chanting, “Let us in,” drowning out much of Quinn’s comments.
In a move that perplexed many, openly lesbian and gay Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Danny O’Donnell, both Manhattan Democrats, were absent from the press conference, as was lesbian Councilmember Margarita Lopez (D-Lower East Side).
“I was out of town and had plans to be out of town long before there was an announcement of a press conference,” Glick told Gay City News from Albany, where she was in session.
“I had a commitment to be in my district that day,” said O’Donnell, adding, “I unconditionally support gay marriage, I supported it when I ran for the state Senate in 1998 and I supported it when I ran [for the Assembly] in 2002.”
After accusations surfaced in the March 3 edition of the New York Post that Glick and O’Donnell “are lying low on this issue because Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver hasn’t taken a position [on it],” Glick contacted Gay City News to add, “I spend half my life in Albany away from my partner. I respectfully reserve the right to spend the occasional weekend with her. I don’t just fight for lesbian and gay rights, I want to actually be a lesbian sometimes.”
Lopez was reportedly at the swearing-in of Councilmember Robert Jackson. Lopez was unavailable for comment to Gay City News, but The Villager quoted Lopez as arguing that the City Council has the power to order Robles to issue licenses so that the call from Speaker Miller was “disingenuous.”
Organizer Andrew Miller told Gay City News that Lopez has been “incredibly cooperative.”
Also notably absent from the press conference were representatives from the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the statewide lesbian and gay civil rights organization.
Sources knowledgeable about the planning of the event told Gay City News that there was considerable friction between Marriage Equality and the Pride Agenda over the scheduling of the press conference.
“The Pride Agenda does not own this issue,” said Alan Van Capelle, ESPA’s executive director. “No one appointed the Pride Agenda as the standard bearer on this issue. Everybody has got to work together.”
“I congratulate folks who came out on Sunday,” he added. “It is one of the many times that they will have to be at such events. This is one of the first.”
Van Capelle, however, did acknowledge that he contacted Gottfried’s office to suggest that the assemblymember not participate in the Sunday event because not enough allies of the gay community––from elected office, labor, religious groups, and business––had yet been lined up.
The press conference Sunday was preceded by a demonstration outside CBS recording studios on West 57th Street, where Democratic presidential candidates were debating in a closed, televised session inside. Of the four candidates on hand, only Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton endorse same-sex marriage.
Approximately 70 demonstrators held placards with slogans like “Don’t Deny Love” and “Taxpayer $ince 1970,” protesting the failure of Democrats to more forcefully respond to Bush’s constitutional gambit. The announcement earlier in the week by presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, that he would support a state constitutional amendment to overturn the same-sex marriage ruling there if civil unions were enacted drew particular scorn.
“We’re trying to light a fire under the ass of the Democratic Party,” said Justin Bennett MacCubbin. “I believe that we should be treated equally under the law and that doesn’t mean domestic partner benefits. We should have the right to marry whomever we want, regardless of gender.”
“This is ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ all over again,” said Steve Albert, referring to the Clinton-era policy of allowing gays to serve in the military only if they remain silent about their homosexuality.
“You have to pick a side,” said David Korman. “You can’t waffle on it. Either you’re going to be on the side of rights or on the side of oppression. The people who are here represent the majority of Americans.”
Then, he added, “The polls vary, but I’ll say that if we had a five-minute conversation with the people on the fence, they’d understand the issues.”