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Showing Up For Marriage

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In only the most recent mass gathering of gay and lesbian marriage rights advocates here in the city, I had the opportunity Wednesday evening to moderate a discussion at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center about the role that New York City and New York State will play in this suddenly whirlwind struggle.

The results were encouraging not only for the turnout––about 150 people who stayed engaged for more than two hours––but also for the range of careful thought a wide range of speakers––panelists and audience members alike––demonstrated on an issue that, ready or not, has fully arrived.

The evening was organized by the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, with support from the Stonewall Democrats, the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, and a host of Manhattan Democratic clubs not specifically tied to the LGBT community.

The evening made clear that there are a number of roads that we can travel down to win marriage rights here in New York. None of those roads is easy and none currently offers a clear vision of victory at its end. But, as City Councilmember Philip Reed took pains to emphasize, no road among the choices discussed is a dead end, and for strategic purposes, each must be pursued.

Connie Ress is an activist who helped found Marriage Equality New York six years ago, and has been doing grassroots organizing ever since, long before the community at large had even grappled with the fundamental question of whether marriage rights should be prominent on our agenda. Ress and her Marriage Equality colleagues have been preparing for this historical moment since they founded the group, yet she readily acknowledges the struggle even grassroots groups have keeping pace with an exploding political and cultural phenomenon. To its credit, Marriage Equality seems prepared to greet new converts to the effort with open arms. The cooperation between the group and the ad hoc NYMarriageEqualityNOW.org that came together to organize last Thursday’s action at City Hall set a positive example for community cooperation.

Anthony Brown has also been toiling for years on the marriage issue, as one of the key movers behind the Wedding Party, a volunteer group that consistently make creative use of media opportunities to deliver their message to audiences that otherwise might not be tuning in. The group stages a remarkable marriage ceremony in the park opposite the Plaza Hotel each Pride Sunday. But, on Wednesday night, Brown spoke eloquently about the impact each of us can have in our own lives––by sending a handwritten letter not only to our elected officials but also to those who represent our parents; by engaging a debate with politically conservative people in our lives; and most importantly, by telling our story to those who love and support us, but might not yet understand the importance of marriage rights in our lives.

Reed, an African American who represents a good swath of Harlem and sections of the South Bronx, spoke about the difficulties in focusing people of color communities, beset by a host of other challenges in a bad economic environment under a conservative federal government, on an issue which too often gets portrayed in the media as a white concern. Reed explained that as a city councilmember he spends most of his time and energy on pressing issues separate from specifically LGBT matters, but also said he is tired of the misconception that gay matters are not important to significant numbers in people of color communities.

On Sunday, Reed with join with Gay Men of African Descent and the National Black Justice Coalition on the steps of City Hall to hold the first African American rally for same-sex marriage rights in New York.

Kevin Finnegan, a past GLID president who does political work for SEIU 1199, the city’s leading service workers union, talked about the challenge of winning organized labor to our side in the marriage battle. Unlike 20 years ago, he said, our community is not facing a hostile audience in labor, but neither has the deal yet been closed. The buzz about marriage has reached the top councils of labor in New York, but whether leading union officials are ready to step into a leadership position is another matter. The efforts by Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), to build visible support on gay issues among labor’s ranks should remain a top priority.

Joe Tarver, a top ESPA official, described the activism coming alive across the state, from Buffalo to Potsdam, and how his group is working to support that spirit and leverage its power in Albany. Asked whether the Democrats in Albany are prepared to build a firewall against any anti-marriage effort in the Legislature, neither Tarver nor Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Daniel O’Donnell could say for sure. Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, has signaled that he will not bring any anti-gay measure to the floor, but no one can predict the mischief Republican amendments to other pressing legislation could do, and the trade-offs that might become necessary.

John Shields, the out gay mayor of Nyack in Rockland County, the first community in the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, discussed the lawsuit that he, his partner, and nine other plaintiff couples are prepared to file this week in state Supreme Court seeking marriage rights.

With a similar, though not identically argued suit already filed in Manhattan by Lambda Legal, Shields reminded the crowd of city residents that initiative is coming from all around the state.

Undoubtedly there is a pressing need for coordination in strategies that different players in the state’s diverse LGBT community are pursuing. The gathering at the Community Center Wednesday night played a critical role in furthering the dialogue necessary to make that sharing of ideas and experience happen.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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