Same-sex Marriage, New York Style (2011)

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June 2011, my partner, Juan, and I left our 13-month-old son, Oliver, home in Roanoke with his nanny, and traveled to New York City for a Pride dinner with President Obama. By that time, the LGBTQ Community had made great progress in its fight for equality on many levels. As the recent board chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), NY state’s LGBTQ political action committee, I’d been intimately involved in its strategies, successes and failures. ESPA had begun years before by asking for a few, what now seem like “easy” (though they were not), attainable “wins” each legislative session.

By 2011, nothing less than marriage, with its 1,300+ concomitant rights unavailable with any other form of union, was acceptable to us. As a matter of fact, ESPA had listed these rights in a brilliant book published in partnership with the New York Bar Association, a response to those who thought something other than marriage should be just fine for ‘the gays.’  Having those facts available in a book that we could pull out and hand to others, was powerful. One of the simplest, most succinct, non-emotional, and powerful things we ever did.

As we gathered for our dinner with the President and other LGBT advocates, the New York Legislature was debating the Marriage Equality Bill on the floor of the Senate that night. It was an exciting time. We‘d made great progress to that point. And with Governor Andrew Cuomo solidly and actively supporting it, the bill had a solid chance of passing. But, we were cautious and suspicious of many legislators’ underlying motives.

The President spoke and, after some time, it became obvious he wasn’t going to mention Marriage Equality. He spoke about Middle East policy, our wars in that region, the economy, but nothing even remotely about us, the community that loved and supported him, the community that was gathered in that room for him, as marriage equality was literally being debated on the floor in Albany—during Pride Week in New York City.

It seemed so off, wrong; like, maybe his staff hadn’t prepped him on the audience he’d be addressing. He didn’t even acknowledge that New York was on the cusp of putting marriage equality into law—the most important historic legislative issue to affect our community to date. My blood was boiling. No one had come there to hear about Iraq, as important as it may have been.

“What about marriage?!?” Someone yelled out, interrupting something he was saying about Iraq. It had come from someone at the next table, who I knew well and with whom I had served on a national LGBTQ board. A respectable, thoughtful, smart lawyer! Then, others joined her with catcalls.

“Get me re-elected. Then, we can talk about this.” the President replied, in a somewhat snarky tone.

Dumbfounded, I felt my heartbreak. I loved this man. But, maybe he’s not who I thought he was or who I wanted as our President.

“He didn’t just say that. Did he?” I whispered to Juan. But, he had. And there was lots of booing.

“But, President Obama, you’re the President. We controlled both chambers until this year. If not now, when?” someone asked.

Eventually, after the President had issued some vague platitudes, the crowd quieted down. After the dinner, the president’s campaign manager asked six or seven of us what we thought about the evening. Of course, seeing the President of the United States anywhere is an amazing and moving experience, especially when he’s speaking to a group representing the LGBT community, a group that Presidents had rarely ever addressed.  The others gushed about how great his speech was. When he noticed I was quiet and not smiling, he asked how I thought it had gone.

“Awful,” I replied, “How could I possibly support or ask my friends to support the Democratic incumbent—our first Black President—when he could not even say the word “marriage”, much less talk about the Marriage Equality Bill currently being debated in Albany?!?”

“And…” I continued in frustration, “the President agrees to help us get our constitutional rights and protections AFTER we get him re-elected? No sir!”

He was surprised but listened. The others in my party wanted nothing more than to hide under the bar.

The next day, Friday, was gray, cold, and rainy. Juan and I were staying with a close friend in downtown Manhattan. His apartment overlooked the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, offering a stunning view, even in the rain. We were getting hourly updates from the Pride Agenda on the Marriage Equality Bill in Albany. It was gut-wrenching. Up and down, down and up. We were conflicted. We wanted to be up in Albany, but, we also had a baby back home. We were torn about traveling further away, making it harder to get back to Roanoke in case of an emergency. So, we stayed put in Manhattan.

Hours went by and movement in Albany seemed to slow. By late afternoon, we were missing Oliver. so, as there seemed to be no new developments on the marriage bill, we decided to catch the train back to D.C. and then head back home to Virginia.

Just as we were standing up to walk off the train at Union Station in D.C., we got word that the bill was finally being brought to the Senate floor in Albany. We checked in with our nanny and learned that all was fine at home. So, we decided to stay in D.C., close to the train, in case good news might prompt us to return to New York, and we went to dinner there on DuPont Circle.

Our staff reported there was some optimism: the Senate was going to stay in session for a while. Then, the bill got stuck again. It wasn’t clear there’d be a vote that night after all, though Governor Cuomo continued to put the full weight of his office into negotiations. Mayor Bloomberg and his office were also doing everything in their power to push the bill forward. It was exciting to see this all come together, yet nerve-wracking because of the possibility it might not pass.

For years, our philosophy at ESPA had been that winning marriage equality in New York was important for New Yorkers, who we represented. But, it was equally important for LGBTQ rights nationwide. New York was an “engine state”, because of its prominence and its sheer numbers. We believed that, if New York and California were able to offer same-sex marriage and its protections, it would lead to marriage rights in other states across the country.

As we were finishing dinner, our office informed us it was unclear when, if at all, a vote would happen that night. If it did, it would be very late. So, we got into our car and headed down the Shenandoah Valley back to our new son in Roanoke.

Two hours into our drive, at 10 pm, we got a call informing us the vote was about to start. It was being broadcast live on a cable channel in the New York area.  At that time, technology didn’t offer many options for tapping into a distant broadcast from I-81 in southwest Virginia. So, we called one of our dearest friends in New York City, the late Ian Hoblyn, who tuned into the vote from his Upper West Side apartment, positioning his phone receiver close to the TV, so we could hear the vote in the chamber in Albany, together with Ian’s running commentary. In the meantime, Juan and I had pulled our car into a truck stop to listen. It was a safe bet that among the scores of big rigs and few cars on I-81 that evening, ours was the only one tuned into the live same-sex marriage vote in New York.

For the next hour, we listened intently, as the roll call vote passed from legislator to legislator, trying to keep track of the vote count. Finally, we heard it over the broadcast, “and, the final vote in favor of Same-Sex Marriage is 29 against and 33 for. The bill has passed!”

It was, for lack of an appropriately effusive adjective, amazing! We screamed, hugged, and cried with Ian over the phone. We continued to listen, as Governor Cuomo signed the just-passed Marriage Equality Bill into law. It was done. It became law before midnight!

The next day, we flew with Oliver to New York. Sunday morning was beautiful—nature was with us. It was the day of the annual LGBTQ Pride parade and, as we’d done for years, we met our incredibly organized ESPA team and shared in the euphoria sweeping across New York that morning. We shook hands and hugged Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Chris Quinn, State Senator Brad Hoylman, many other elected officials, our incredible staff, and numerous board members.

Me, Juan, and Oliver celebrating in the streets of NYC.

And, for the next four-and-a-half hours, we walked, waved, and smiled down the middle of Fifth Avenue, listening to the cheers of the record crowd of two million people. For the first time in my ten plus year’s marching in the Pride parade with ESPA, we weren’t asking for anything but were thanking all who’d done so much to help us earn legal protection to a right the Constitution already provided.

Oliver loved every second of it, mesmerized by all the activity and positive energy, as he sat on Juan’s shoulders the whole parade.

And, as our team had predicted, the win in New York State was a major step forward for Marriage Equality. In May 2012, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, notably before his re-election in November 2012. Then, three years later, on Pride weekend in June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalizing it in all fifty states.

Democracy is work. Equality is work. But, they’re so worth it.

Love is Love. And Love Wins.

Happy Pride