Friday, February 6, 2009

Perspective on marriage equality progress in New York State

We wanted to share with you a Perspectives column in this week's Gay City News written by Ross Levi, our Director of Public Policy & Education, about the evolution of marriage equality in New York State:

Marriage Equality's Political Mainstreaming
By: Ross D. Levi

At the press conference two weeks ago when Kirsten Gillibrand accepted Governor David Paterson's appointment to become New York's next US senator, she spoke about how she would be going to Washington to fight for economic and social justice issues like women's rights and marriage equality for same-sex couples.

This first-ever public commitment to marriage equality by a US senator from New York was certainly noticed by the LGBT community.

Less noticed was the fact that this was probably the most high-profile instance of a New York State politician using marriage equality as an illustration of their progressive Democratic credentials. In less than six years, marriage for same-sex couples had gone from being a controversial hot-button issue in statewide politics to a demonstration of New York Democratic bona fides.

It is easy to forget that not even six years ago, in 2003 when Canada became the first jurisdiction in our hemisphere where a New York same-sex couple could get legally married, national polls showed that only between 31 and 40 percent of Americans supported the idea of same-sex couples being allowed to marry, with between 51 and 56 percent opposed.

The Pride Agenda's most recent polling, in 2006, showed those numbers had basically flipped, with 53 percent supporting same-sex couples having the ability to marry versus 38 percent who opposed.

This evolution of marriage equality as a mainstream political issue did not occur by accident. On the contrary, marriage equality advocates have engaged in a long, hard-fought, and very deliberate campaign to have marriage equality - like reproductive choice - treated as a bellwether issue for Democrats from New York. The Empire State Pride Agenda, for one, knew that any high-profile LGBT equality and justice issue would need the support of a majority of New Yorkers before it would be passed into law.

So we began a statewide effort to change hearts and minds. Working with the LGBT community across the state, we held dozens of town meetings, trained hundreds of "Marriage Ambassadors," and created a statewide Family Photo Album, with pages showing loving LGBT families, that were displayed in libraries, community centers, and coffee houses all across the state.

In 2006, much of this work came together when, less than 12 hours after the state's highest court said New York's Constitution was not violated by same-sex couples being barred from marriage, we were able to organize thousands of New Yorkers to attend rallies in half a dozen communities from Buffalo to Long Island.

We also began gathering non-LGBT allies to stand with us, and advocate for us. We compiled dozens of testimonials from prominent New Yorkers in support of marriage equality, from local politicians to union leaders to clergy. Hundreds of faith leaders from dozens of congregations started speaking out publicly in support of marriage equality as part of our Pride in the Pulpit program. Unions began passing resolutions in support of it and, more importantly, began asking about the issue as part of their political endorsement process.

And we're not the only ones organizing New Yorkers to demonstrate their support for marriage equality. Similarly great work is being done by Marriage Equality New York and a more recent arrival, Join the Impact.

Now, six years later, the "hearts and minds" work is paying big dividends. Every Democrat who has been elected or appointed to statewide elected office since 2006 -Â including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller - has been in full support of marriage equality, as well as other important LGBT issues like transgender nondiscrimination and safe schools for LGBT youth. Marriage equality also has the support of the speaker of the New York State Assembly and the majority leader of the State Senate.

And, most tangibly, in 2007 when the marriage equality bill received its first vote in any chamber of the New York State Legislature, it passed the Assembly 85 - 61.

Clearly the work is far from over. For example, there is one lone holdout among statewide elected officials - Senator Charles Schumer, who has yet to voice his support for marriage equality. Also, there are not yet the necessary votes committed in the New York State Senate to pass a marriage equality bill - but there will be, with continued hard work by all of us across the state.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that a significant milestone has already been reached. When the nation watches the "debut" of a new senator from New York, and she proactively highlights her support for marriage equality for same-sex couples, the issue has certainly arrived as a threshold litmus test for all statewide Democrats. And now that it is out there, there is no shoving this issue back into the political closet.

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