The Marriage Equality Victory in New York From A Straight Ally Viewpoint
Let me begin by saying that I am not here to take credit for the marriage equality victory in New York but rather to provide a behind the scenes look at what went on in this epic battle from the viewpoint of a straight ally.
I first became involved with Marriage Equality New York when my gay Masonic friend, Dave Warren asked me to get involved and help out this organization. So you might say even the Masons had a hand in our victory.
The first thing I did was contact Cathy Marino-Thomas at MENY. We hit it off immediately as I told her about how much I supported LGBT rights because of the support I received from that community during my race for the state assembly in 1994.
The first thing she did was ask me to attend a marriage equality gathering at an Episcopal church in Orange County featuring an Episcopal priest from California showing that not all religious groups were opposed to same sex marriage. That is where I met Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis. These two people had sung for years in their Catholic Church’s choir. Then they got married and were asked to leave the choir. They did and took up with an Episcopal choir where they sing to this day. This story told me that there was a great injustice going on when it came to marriage equality in addition to the equality issue. By the way Michael and Robert went on to co star in the March On film on marriage equality.
My next assignment was to help MENY to get a foothold in the Hudson Valley so I organized a same sex marriage rally for Beacon’s riverside park with some help from the Beacon Sloop Club a progressive organization founded by Pete Seeger. I promoted the event everywhere and conducted a massive PR blitz.
On the day of the event, Cathy, me, Michael, Robert and Rob Lassegue showed up from MENY and we set up our tables and tent and all our brand new literature and banners and waited for the crowds to appear. We sat in the middle of an empty park, only four people showed up. We all became very depressed but no one blamed me, we just realized it was going to be a tough battle. The Sloop Club took us all out for a ride on the sailing sloop Woody Guthrie. The sailing experience soothed our nerves and we had a bull session and realized from now on we would not organize our own festivals but just have a table at other people’s fests focusing our work on the annual wedding march over the Brooklyn Bridge among other things.
The next thing I did was advise Cathy as an attorney and judge on the judges on New York’s Court of Appeals. My analysis showed that there were four conservative judges appointed by Governor Pataki and approved, as I knew as a former Republican, by Michael Long of the Conservative Party a group that adamantly stands against marriage equality. I asked her to hold off on bringing the case forward until a Democratic governor appointed more liberal judges. She became furious with me and it was then that I realized that the battle was also about love. When you are in love with someone you don’t want to have to wait to get married and spend the rest of your life together. As it was we lost the case by a majority plus one.
I went on to send out an email where I talked about our inalienable rights to equality and love. Marriage went back 500 years to Shakespeare where in his plays people married because they were in love not as our opposition says to procreate. I even traced marriage back to the cradle of Western Civilization to the Ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago who married to legitimize the sexual union not because they wanted to have children. This email went viral and was the basis for my recent interview with and letter in the Poughkeepsie Journal.
We experienced the loss in California and then in 2009 our bill was up for a vote in the New York State Senate. We realized we needed Republican votes to win passage so I put Cathy in touch with my friend from Republican days John Faso who had run for Governor against Spitzer. He was well respected by Republicans and agreed to speak with her even though he knew that I had now returned to the Democratic Party. The two spoke but she could not convince him to support equality, he favored civil unions instead a half measure the New York gay community opposed. But she got some ideas from him and it opened a channel of communications between Republicans and MENY for the first time.
We lost the 2009 vote and became angry and so launched candidates like Didi Barrett against our senate opponents on both sides of the aisle with mixed success. Funding came from supporters like Betsy Malcolm in New York. Then Andrew Cuomo came into office and took charge of the movement creating New Yorkers United for Marriage an umbrella group that included MENY, Log Cabin Republicans, Human Rights Campaign and some other groups. He wanted us all to be on the same page with the same message rather than our scatter gun approach of the past.
Before this I had been supporting the effort with my Room Eight Columns and my interview segments on Chris Sorochin’s Stony Brook University Radio show. My last Room Eight column on this issue attacked Senator Saland in the Hudson Valley and revealed some of our plans for victory. Michael emailed me saying I should use caution about what I was saying so I pulled the column after it had been up for twenty minutes. Cathy called up and reprimanded me for what I had said in the column. You see I had operated outside the group plan in an attack mode that was no longer the way we were going to do things but you see they forgot to tell me about this new approach.
Two points, Senator Saland opposed the measure on religious grounds and so I had given up on him and if you think I should have kept the blog up on journalistic principal your wrong because my involvement for the cause was not for my own benefit but to serve the gay community. If they told me to take that hill, or lay on barbwire I would have done so without question.
Big Gay Hudson Valley was at this point holding some large festivals and unknown to us Stephen Hengst and Patrick Decker of that group were still calling on Senator Saland going back to 2008. My column went dark on same sex marriage because I didn’t want to trip up our effort by accident however I continued with my radio segment featuring same sex marriage topics. Stony Brook University Radio was reaching Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens seeming to cause support to bubble to the surface in the backyard of the Republican Senate Majority leader Dean Skelos. One of my last interviews was with Ron Zacchi of MENY who was walking across the state for marriage equality on the eve of the second senate vote.
Then the Poughkeepsie Journal a somewhat conservative Hudson Valley newspaper came out strongly in an editorial for marriage equality going on to say that Senator Saland was now on the fence. We immediately went into action making calls to him and utilizing the phone bank service of Friendfactor an automatic calling service in the social media context. Then long time supporter, progressive Democratic Dutchess County Legislator Joel Tyner, organized a rally at Saland’s office that got press coverage and this brought in the region’s progressives who began making calls and area labor unions also joined in with their own phone banks. We were told the senator was listening to the calls and was also listening to his family and his rabbi who all supported our efforts.
That takes us to the night of the vote when Saland stood up to speak. I realized immediately he was going to be a yes vote because he was inoculating himself against a conservative backlash against him. I immediately Facebooked that he was going to vote yes. And in the end he became the 32nd yes vote giving us a majority with four Republicans joining in including Saland and all but one Democrat. I began to cry. What began with failure in Beacon in the Hudson Valley ended with the Hudson Valley’s own senator voting yes and victory six years later. Friends contacted me on the MENY Hudson Valley Facebook page and my own and I got so many thanks with one person even calling me a personal hero. But the kindest words came from Cathy who said “we have come a long way from Beacon my old friend.” And I realized that in the service of marriage equality we had become old friends. Many people helped with this effort and deserve credit but I believe it would not have become a reality without the behind the scenes work of Andrew Cuomo who is the man of the hour. And that is the story of New York’s battle for marriage equality from a straight ally’s perspective.
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