A Year Later, A Reflection On New York's Same-Sex Marriage Law | News
By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY -- A year ago, a packed crowd inside the state Senate chamber roared when senators passed, 33-29, a bill to make same-sex marriage legal in New York - making it the largest state in the nation to do so.
Cheers could be heard from the hallways of the Capitol, and an impromptu chant of "U.S.A." broke out.
Now a year later, the effects of the same-sex marriage law are being felt across the state.
While the economic impact of the law has yet to be fully determined and a legal challenge is working through the courts, gay couples said they are experiencing something many never thought would come: equality.
"To be able to feel equal to your next door neighbors who are married and other family members, all of that has been kind of amazing," said Brian O'Neill, 42, an artist from Rochester. He and his partner Jim Hansen were the city's first couple to get married when the law took effect July 24.
"We never thought we would see this," he continued, "to have this sense of equality."
The rush for gay couples to get married in New York perhaps hasn't been as profound as many people had expected.
City halls across the state had a surge for the first same-sex marriages on July 24 -- the first day marriages were legal after the bill was passed June 24. But gay-rights advocates said many couples have taken their time in getting married.
Through early June, 3,037 same-sex couples were married outside New York City since the law took effect in July 2011, about 6 percent of the total weddings, the state Health Department said.
"When marriage equality first passed, the general public, I think, and the media were expecting all the gay couples to rush to get married," said David Juhren, executive director of The Loft, a gay-rights group based in White Plains.
"It's not just the legal marriage aspect of it, it's the uniting of families and bringing people together. So what really happened was everybody said: 'We can get married. We can start planning our wedding now.'"
Gay couples said they've seen an increasing number of their friends getting married this year compared to last year. Like any couple, it can take a year or more to plan a wedding.
Karen Armstrong, 41, of Vestal, Broome County, got married to her partner, Barbara Barry, 43, on St. Patrick's Day in March. They have been together since high school, for more than 24 years, and have three children.
"It was nice for the first time in our lives for our relationship to be celebrated publicly," said Armstrong, who is the health educator for the Lesbian and Gay Family Building Project in Binghamton. "I felt like: This is what people feel when they get married."
Rich Eckert, 39, got married in May to his partner, Robert Mattes, 34. Eckert said the timing just felt right.
"Life continues," said Eckert, a sergeant with the Town of Chester Police Department in Orange County. "For me, I'm not an activist, but it's something that I feel I should have the right to do."
Opponents Fighting Law
Opponents of same-sex marriage are still railing against the law.
New Yorkers For Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative group based in Spencerport, Monroe County, is suing the Senate over the June 24 vote. The group claims the vote was illegally held because Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers had closed-door meetings to discuss the vote.
The case was heard before a state appeals court in Rochester last month after it advanced from state Supreme Court.
Jason McGuire, the group's executive director, said he's hopeful the case will ultimately be heard by the state's highest court, the state Court of Appeals.
He said some people, such as photographers and judges, have reached out to him on concerns about having to provide services to gay couples. But he said the people largely refrained from making their complaints public, although a few upstate town clerks either resigned or declined to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
"People have contacted us. They are trying to stay under the radar," McGuire said.
State Conservative Party chairman Michael Long said the Legislature should have taken the issue to the voters.
"The voters of the state should have had an opportunity to cast a ballot on it," Long said. "I believe if that had happened, it would have failed, as it has in every other state in the nation."
Backlash To Vote
Opponents said they plan to challenge the senators in November who voted for same-sex marriage. The measure passed in the GOP-led Senate because four Republican senators voted for it.
One of them, Sen. James Alesi, R-Perinton, Monroe County, said last month he's not seeking re-election, in large part because of backlash over a lawsuit he filed against a couple in his district after he trespassed on their property.
The other three Republicans senators are facing primary challenges.
Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, said he's proud of his vote.
He was the critical 32nd vote in the Senate make the bill a law.
"What I did then I thought was the right thing," Saland said. "As I talk to you today, I continue to believe I did the right thing."
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, said he didn't think the same-sex marriage vote would be a major issue in the November elections. He voted against it, but said he let his members vote how they wanted.
"I'm sure that there are some people who are unhappy about, some who are happy about it," Skelos said. "But overall, what we are seeing in our polling and what people are saying on the street: jobs, taxes, and affordability of staying in New York state."
Religious Exemptions Intact
Saland fought to ensure that religious organizations that don't want to perform or recognize same-sex marriages are not penalized by a loss of state aid or their licenses.
Lawmakers and religious groups said they are unaware of any challenges to the religious exemptions, such as a same-sex couple going to a religious agency to adopt a child.
"We certainly talk to anyone who wants to come to us on any options and resources that are available," said Lori Accardi, executive director at Catholic Charities of Broome County. "But so far, it's not something we've had to address in any way."
Pushing Other States
Gay-rights activists said New York's approval of same-sex marriage, shepherded through the Legislature by Cuomo, has helped build support nationally.
"I think this will go down in the history books when they talk about New York first or trajectories of social progress," Cuomo said.
Since New York's law, the Washington and Maryland legislatures passed same-sex marriage, but the issue will head to voters in both states in November. In California, an appeals court in February overturned a same-sex marriage ban and the issue could head to a higher court.
President Obama last month said he supports same-sex marriage, citing New York's law as part of his decision.
"I think the wind is at our backs and it's just a matter of time before our federal government recognizes our marriages, and I think New York had a critical place in this," said Lynn Faria, interim executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.
But there have been setbacks for gay-rights groups. North Carolina voters last month passed a ban on same-sex marriage, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a same-sex marriage bill in February.
Some gay-rights leaders in New York said some couples have refrained from getting married because their licenses wouldn't be legal nationally. They could file income taxes jointly in New York, but would have to do so separately for federal taxes, for example.
"You have people who have been together for 30, 35 years that are as married as anyone," said Anne Wakeman, interim executive director of The Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley. "They are actually not moving forward with it right now because we don't have anything additional to prove."
A report in May 2011 from the Senate Independent Democratic Conference estimated the state would reap $400 million in economic activity over three years because of gay couples getting married and visiting New York.
The report estimated that 21,300 gay and lesbian couples from New York would get married and another 45,000 would come from other states.
As of February, New York City said it estimated 5,054 marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples. So with the ones outside the city, that's a total of about 8,100. New York City did not provide updated statistics.
The numbers are not exact. The law created a new marriage license that let couples chose whether they are heterosexual, male/male, female/female or unspecified.
Outside New York City, 19 percent of couples, or 8,856 of the licenses, were listed as "unspecified."
Gay-rights advocates and tourism officials said they expect the number of same-sex marriages to increase as more couples plan weddings.
"It's too young of a market to track," said Mike Hardy, director of convention and visitor services at the Greater Rochester Visitors Association.
Hardy said businesses and hotels have already begun tailoring advertising and packages for gay couples and families.
"I got a lot of calls from our members, the majority of the hotels and banquet spaces and unique venues who called and said, "What do you do?' and I said, 'You need to make sure you're truly wanting to service and that your staff will be respectful of two guys dancing on the dance floor.'"
Zelesther Cay, 41, a nurse from Poughkeepsie, has been with his partner, Christopher Scholl, for 16 years. They had a commitment ceremony in 2005 and got married last July.
"We said, 'You know what? We are getting married. We've waited a long time for this," Cay said, adding, "To call Chris my spouse has meaning now. In my heart it always had meaning, but now there's legal meaning to it."