Pride Week came early this year as New Yorkers celebrated the historic U.S. breakthrough on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
On Thursday, a small crowd in Sheridan Square near Stonewall Place cheered a gay couple and a lesbian couple from New York who had married in Somerville, Massachusetts the day before.
And two to three thousand supporters of marriage equality for same-sex couples paraded across the Brooklyn Bridge this past sunny Sunday on the way to a rally in Battery Park. At one point the crowd—made up of all ages and races, gay and lesbian couples, single people, and straight supporters—stretched the entire length of the upper catwalk on the bridge.
“It’s obvious that marriage matters to the [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community,” said Connie Ress, director of Marriage Equality USA. “We marched because we love, because we celebrate Massachusetts, and because we demand marriage rights in New York. This is about couples who have been together for years and are committed to each other and no longer want to live as legal strangers.”
Many familiar faces in the fight for marriage equality gathered in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn for the trudge across the bridge.
Evan Wolfson, who won the Hawaiian same-sex marriage case at the trial level in 1996, was joined by his partner Cheng He and Wolfson’s young nephew.
Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal’s supervising attorney, and Alphonso David, the new staff attorney on their New York same-sex marriage case marched as did at least two of the plaintiff couples, both from Harlem—Michael Elsasser and Doug Robinson as well as Curtis Woolbright and Daniel Reyes. The city’s answer to that suit is due on June 1.
Elsasser and Robinson, have been together for 20 years, registered as domestic partners when it first became available in New York in 1992, and were the first couple to have their union blessed in Riverside Church by pastor Rev. James Forbes in 1994. They have raised two sons.
“It is ironic and hypocritical,” Robinson said, “that the government thinks it is OK for us to create a family, yet does not support it.”
Longtime gay activist and Brooklyn Democratic district leader Alan Fleishman noted that support for same-sex marriage is strong in the Brooklyn congressional delegation, with Major Owens, Nydia Velázquez, Anthony Weiner, and Ed Towns on board.
City Councilmember Margarita Lopez marched with her partner, Francisca Rivera, and gave an impassioned speech at the rally, which was emceed by David Thompson, co-chair of Marriage Equality/NY. Speakers including the Rev. Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church New York and Carolina Cordero of the Out People of Color Political Action Club linked issues like fighting poverty and war to this struggle for justice.
Veteran activists Ron Madson and Richard Dietz of Brooklyn Heights, who successfully sued the city to win domestic partner benefits for city workers in 1993, were there.
“We’ve been best friends for 34 years,” said Madson. “When we started out we were lovers, then we became partners, then we became domestic partners, and now we’re looking to get married.”
Why not go to Canada?
“Our battle is in the United States,” Madson replied. We would get married in a state where there is no question of legality for New York residents.”
“I was never a big fan of marriage per se because most people I know were divorced,” said Dietz. “But I think as a citizen and as a taxpayer it ought to be my choice. I never needed anyone to tell me my relationship was legitimate, but it does make a difference to be legally recognized.”
Few politicians made it to the Wedding March, many because they were committed to the Salute to Israel Day Parade uptown. Brendan Fay, back from Massachusetts with his Civil Marriage Trail group, challenged elected officials who “march with us on Pride Day but not with us in a Wedding March,” citing U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, none of whom support the right of gay couples to marry.
Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum was the highest ranking political leader at the rally, pledging full support for the Right to Marry Bill in Albany sponsored by Tom Duane in the Senate and Dick Gottfried in the Assembly. Gottfried, who was also on hand, noted that this movement challenges the idea that we can’t change institutions like marriage that have “always been” a certain way, noting the country was founded by people who believed we didn’t need a king even though “it had always been that way.”
Also speaking was former Public Advocate Mark Green, now a candidate for state Attorney General, who was introduced by veteran activist Allen Roskoff who was among those who took over the city marriage bureau in 1971 with the Gay Activists Alliance to protest the exclusion of gay people from getting licenses. Green noted that LGBT activists marched to this same park 18 years ago to protest the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholding sodomy laws, overturned last year in the Lawrence v. Texas case that recognized a right to privacy in sexual matters for gay people, an acknowledgement that may prove critical in the fight for marriage rights.
Yonkers husbands Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorhees got married in Canada last year and said they still can’t file joint tax returns here because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Betty Santoro, a veteran of Lesbian Feminist Liberation, a New York activist group founded in the early 1970s, who helped organize the event, said, “I’m really happy with the march, but I believe we should have moved faster and sooner because the movement was born here. New York should be in the forefront.”
Many of the marchers wore numbers between one and 1,138, representing the number of federal rights and responsibilities denied gay couples because they cannot marry, as documented by Congress’ General Accounting Office. But Robin and Cris Goldman-Beam and Eddie DeBonis and Vinnie Maniscalco did tie the knot in Massachusetts last week and were warmly received by the crowd and at an emotional Thursday rally in Greenwich Village organized by Civil Marriage Trail.
DeBonis and Maniscalco, subjects of a new documentary on their religious wedding called “Saints and Sinners,” were brimming with pride, but described the stress of dealing with the legal uncertainties for same-sex couples who went to the Bay State last week.
“The officials in Somerville was amazing to us,” said DeBonis. “They told us where we had to go, had everything ready, and could not have been more accommodating.”
The Aldermen’s Chambers were opened to them for their wedding, the mayor came in on crutches in support, and the clerk performed the ceremony before Gov. Mitt Romney had a chance to halt unions for out-of-state couples who would not affirm that they intended to move to Massachusetts.
Cris Goldman-Beam described waiting outside Cambridge City Hall for the first couples to come out just after midnight on May 17.
“I didn’t believe it would happen until the couples came out with their licenses,” she said.
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, predicted rapid acceptance of the Massachusetts marriages and predicted, “Next year in New York!” and that in ten years this issue would be resolved in this country in our favor.
Assemblymember Gottfried praised Massachusetts for leading the way again, just as they did “150 years ago helping the wall come down on slavery.”
Jesus Lebron, founder of Marriage Equality, promised, “We’re going to get there” in New York on the marriage issue.
The New York couples were treated to a Chelsea wedding banquet at The Dish on Eighth Avenue after the Sheridan Square gathering.