On a scale of 1 to 10, my level of elation on Friday night, June 24, was a solid 10. That was the night the Republican-controlled New York State Senate voted to pass a law legalizing same-sex marriage, making New York the sixth and largest state giving gay men and lesbians the right to marry. Up to the very last moment, the bill’s fate had been hanging by a thread, as the legislators, who were working overtime (their session was to have ended the previous Monday) struggled with the wording, ostensibly to protect religious institutions such as the Catholic Church that oppose same-sex marriages (more on that later).
Until that evening, the bill was one vote short of the 31 it needed to pass, and I was skeptical that the vote would be found. In the end, not only was one vote found, but two more, making the final tally 33 for (including four Republicans) and 29 against (including one Democrat).
The passage of the bill was a jubilant kickoff to New York City’s annual Gay Pride weekend, which commemorates the Stonewall riots of June 1969 when, fed up with persistent persecution and police brutality, patrons of the now iconic Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, fought back when the police conducted a routine raid. The incident sparked a riot that lasted several days and gave birth to the modern gay-rights movement. To me, those days don’t seem so long ago; it’s hard to believe that a government that once sanctioned blatant anti-gay discrimination was now recognizing gay and lesbian relationships as deserving the same rights and benefits as straight relationships.
My elation lasted through the weekend as friends and family—gay and straight—called or e-mailed to share their excitement about the news. My partner of 35 years and I decided that we would, indeed, marry. It seemed that, finally, the world (well, New York, at any rate) was seeing the issue of same-sex marriage for what it is—one of civil rights.
It didn’t take long for my number on the elation scale to begin to drop as I listened to the sound bites on the news of politicians and religious leaders decrying the bill. The media got a lot of mileage from one clip showing Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who declared “I am not a fan of same-sex marriage,” and vowed to veto a marriage equality bill should one ever pass in his state. At a press conference after the bill was passed, New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan denounced same-sex marriage as “not good for the common good” and said that “society and culture [are at] peril” because of it. (He later wrote in his blog that “the next step will be another redefinition [of marriage] to justify multiple partners and infidelity.”) On the Christian Broadcasting Network’s The 700 Club, televangelist Pat Robertson told viewers that gay marriage would, in effect, bring about nothing less than the destruction of society by God.
My number on the elation scale now? Maybe a seven. Yes, the bill had passed, but the battle for equality was far from over.
Over the next days, I read more about the bill itself. One of the 11th-hour legislative compromises was the aforementioned inclusion of protections for religious institutions that do not endorse same-sex marriage, added at the insistence of Senate Republicans. While I am no expert in constitutional law, it seems clear that the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; etc.”) already grants such protections. So why insist on such language in the bill? As Michael Lindenberger reported in Time magazine, the bill “went further than merely restating the constitutionally obvious. It also wrote into law the right for all religious institutions—hospitals, adoption services—and so-called benevolent organizations to refuse to not just marry gay couples but the right to refuse accommodating their weddings, too. For gay couples in New York, good luck finding a Knight[s] of Columbus hall to rent, for instance.”
More disturbing, as Lindenberger explained, the bill contains a poison pill provision, meaning that if a gay couple were to bring a lawsuit against, say, the Knights of Columbus, or a religiously affiliated hospital for refusing to honor spousal visitation rights, and the courts were to strike the bill’s religious liberties clauses, then the bill itself becomes invalidated. In effect, the door for discrimination against same-sex spouses remains wide open.
My number on the scale now? Five.
Then there’s the pesky Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). That law, passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996 (and still in effect), says that the federal government defines marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman,” and that no state must recognize a same-sex marriage from another state. When DOMA was first being debated, I remember listening to countless politicians and religious leaders insisting that same-sex marriage threatened the sanctity of marriage.
I wondered then—and still do—how my relationship with my partner threatens anyone else’s marriage. He and I met when I was a graduate student at Juilliard, and we’ve been a couple ever since. We’ve made a life together. We work and pay taxes. We go to the theater and out to dinner with friends. We travel. We attend synagogue services and occasionally Buddhist meditation retreats. And yes, we do plan to get married in New York, and are thrilled to finally have the chance to do so. (Anyone feeling threatened yet?)
As the openly gay columnist Frank Bruni wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, published the day after the bill’s passage: “We’re not trying to undermine the institution of marriage, a task ably handled by the likes of Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards and too many other onetime role models to mention. We’re paying it an enormous compliment.”
As for Governor Christie and others who share his views, it’s perfectly fine with me that he’s not a fan of same-sex marriage. No one is forcing him to be a fan—or to marry a man. It’s likely that when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the law of the land, there were plenty of Americans who weren’t fans of desegregation. They were entitled to their beliefs. But they were not entitled to deny other citizens their civil rights on the basis of those beliefs.
On Sunday, July 24, the first day that same-sex weddings were being conducted in New York, I went downtown to watch history in the making. At the City Clerk’s Office on Worth Street, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples were lined up, waiting their turn to get marriage licenses, and hundreds of spectators—gay and straight—joined in the festivities. Across the street, outdoor wedding ceremonies were being conducted for beaming couples of all ages, races, and nationalities (many of whom were there with their children). It was a rollicking—and moving—party. That afternoon, I was back at the top of the elation scale. Not even the smattering of protesters, some waving venomous signs reading “God h8s fags,” could knock me down from a solid 10.
Over the coming months and years, as the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act is decided, same-sex marriage will, no doubt, continue to spark heated debate—and create bumps on the elation roller coaster. For now, I’m reminding myself to just enjoy the ride.