\Within hours of President George W. Bush announcing his support for writing anti-gay discrimination into the U.S. Constitution, hundreds massed at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community Center to denounce him and to demand that New York City follow the lead of San Francisco in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
For more than a week after San Francisco’s Mayor Gavin Newsom started marrying gay couples, there was no organized public call in New York to get Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the city clerk to do the same. Independent activist, Andrew Miller, once with ACT UP and news editor of Outweek, stepped into the leadership vacuum late last week, issuing an Internet call for city activists to do something. He announced a town meeting for Friday, February 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Community Center to plan a demonstration demanding that Bloomberg allow same-sex marriages to go forward in New York.
“As the mayor of the city with the largest gay community in the country––a community that has contributed so much to the fabric of New York––his refusal to take a leadership stance on this issue is shameful,” said Miller.
Miller’s call for action followed a February 16 Daily News op-ed written by out gay Democratic district leader and attorney Larry Moss, who led the successful fight to get the State Democratic Committee to endorse same-sex marriage last year. Moss argued that the state’s gender-neutral marriage statute allowed the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Marriage Equality/New York has planned a press conference for Sunday, February 29 at 1:30 p.m. at City Hall “to demand that the New York City mayor and City Council order the city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”
After Bush’s bombshell on Tuesday morning, Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and a longtime New York activist, sent out an Internet call for a rally at the Community Center at 6 p.m. that evening. People arrived angry at both Bush and at the city’s failure to join San Francisco in affirming gay marriages.
“We call on the City Council, we call on the speaker of the City Council, we call on the mayor––issue marriage licenses today,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the LGBT synagogue shouted to thunderous applause.
Out City Councilmember Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea), who argued that it is up to the mayor’s office to direct the city clerk to issue marriage licenses, said, “If we don’t call for it, we will be letting our movement down.”
She chastised Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for being the largest single donor to the Republican National Committee in the country.
“Maybe if he’d just put a stop order on those checks it would put a stop order on that amendment,” she said.
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said that he had called Bloomberg four times on Tuesday to get him to speak out against Bush’s endorsement of the Federal Marriage Amendment and received no answer.
Bloomberg’s office eventually issued a statement Tuesday night opposing the amendment, but also saying that state law did not provide for same-sex marriage and that “the mayor will not ask the city clerk to issue licenses to same-sex couples.”
The mayor declined to say whether he personally supports the right of gay people to marry.
While the sense of the community was clear on Tuesday evening––they want New York marriage licenses now––several mainstream groups led by the Pride Agenda are set to deliver a more ambiguous message in a private meeting, closed to the press, with city councilmembers on Thursday at 11 a.m. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Marriage Equality, and Freedom to Marry will also be in on the discussion that precedes a Council meeting. The Council is already preparing to take up resolutions to condemn Bush’s amendment, “oppose state interference with same-sex couples who choose to marry,” and call upon the state legislature to pass the Right to Marry Bill, co-sponsored by Duane and Manhattan Democratic Assemblymember Richard Gottfried.
Van Capelle said that urging the immediate issuance of marriage licenses to city gay and lesbian couples is “one of the options” they would present to the Council, but refused to say that they would demand it.
“City Hall should be issuing marriage licenses” to gay couples, he said, “but we’re not going to tell them to do one thing.”
Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, who will be among those briefing the Council on Thursday, said, “They should take a stand for equality. Licenses should be issued without unconstitutional discrimination.”
However, Michael Adams, director of education at Lambda, which will also be part of the private briefing, sounded a more nuanced note.
“There is a difference between Lambda stepping up to the plate to defend marriage in San Francisco and saying that this is the best step for New York to take,” he said, even though the marriage law in New York is gender neutral unlike California’s. “There is a difference between the law being silent on same-sex marriage and the law allowing it. In New Mexico the law is silent, couples got licenses, and the Attorney General issued an opinion that it is not allowed, though that’s not final.”
Adams said Lambda’s advice to the Council will depend on the anticipated political ramifications depending on the political situation in the city and the state, “We will be encouraging the Council to do everything they can do to support gay couples and they’re right to marry and pursue what strategies make sense and are smart.”
Quinn acknowledged that city councilmembers might not get definitive marching orders on Thursday.
“If the community groups give a mixed message then elected officials will have to make our own judgement call,” she said.
Just before Bush’s announcement, Tom Smith, the president of Stonewall Democrats, released a letter calling on “Council Speaker Gifford Miller and our friends on the Council” to City Clerk Victor Robles, who was appointed by the Council, “to marry and issue licenses to gay and lesbian couples.” Quinn told Gay City News that while the Council appointed City Clerk Victor Robles, he does not serve at pleasure of the speaker.
“It’s the mayor who is the arbiter of law for the city clerk,” she said, arguing that the mayor’s corporation counsel tells Robles marriage must be open to gay couples, “the clerk will do it.”
Last week, the associate counsel of the clerk’s office said that if the Council and the mayor directed the clerk to issue licenses, “we would have to consider it.”
On the state level, Van Capelle said that his conversations with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s (D-Lower East Side) office indicate that the majority Democrats have “no intention of bringing up” either a pro-same-sex marriage bill or one banning it.
The rally at the Center, chaired by Foreman, was an emotional outpouring of anger and resentment against Bush’s unprecedented call to amend the Constitution to limit the rights of a class of citizens for the first time in American history.
“This is the civil rights battle of our decade,” said Kleinbaum.
“President Bush has made a political calculation,” Quinn said. “He’s lagging in the polls.” She called on the crowd to “flood the White House with calls” protesting his stance. (That number is 202 456 1111 and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
“George Bush cannot stop our getting married,” said state Sen. Tom Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat, noting that U.S. same-sex couples that have already married in Canada and San Francisco and will be able to wed in Massachusetts as of May 17. Duane is holding a hearing in Albany on March 3 on the Right Marry Bill.
Roberta Sklar and Sandra Segal, a couple for 30 years, recently married in Vancouver.
“I don’t think we pose a threat to George Bush,” Segal said of their relationship.
“I want to be a threat to George Bush,” said Sklar. “Let’s get him out of the White House.”
“Today President Bush declared war on his own citizens,” said Adam Aronson, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal. “This is a war that he is definitely going to lose,” noting that Bush just got started fighting us and we’ve been fighting for our rights all our lives.
Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund said Bush’s rhetoric places him alongside the segregationists of the South who 50 years ago called the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling a usurpation by activist judges.
Richard Haymes of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project spoke about the huge upsurge in anti-gay violence reports after the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling last summer striking down sodomy laws. He warned that Bush’s attack on the LGBT community “will make people feel that they have the right to attack us.”
Nila Marrone, president of the Parents-FLAG chapter here, said, “President Bush don’t mess with us. Our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children have parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. We will all fight for our children. We are a lot of people.”
Foreman said that this was the time to reach out to our families and friends and tell them we desperately need their support in this fight.
Ronald Johnson of Gay Men’s Health Crisis said he is “confident” that a majority of the Congress will reject the amendment, but that we still “have to have a new Congress and a new president. Regime change beings at home.”
After the rally, Moss said, “I think it is important in the face of the Bush administration’s attack not to retreat to a defensive posture. The best response locally is to insist that New York start issuing licenses so that we will have the same scenes that we saw in San Francisco of longstanding lesbian and gay couples lining up to be happily married.”