Bill Siegfried,28, and Lucky Michaels, 25, a Brooklyn couple together for four years, were turned away from the city Marriage Bureau and refused the use of the city chapel for their marriage as Marriage Equality and the Metropolitan Community Church pressed for their rights on Valentine's Day.
The Valentine’s Day sun had yet not worked its way to the front door of the Municipal Building at One Centre Street. People stood in line, some with bouquets of colorful flowers, others dressed smartly and crisply waiting for their chance to make it inside to the Marriage Bureau so they could sign the paperwork to be married.
Evelyn Galeb was not in line. Instead she stood in the one of the few places where there was sun. She was shivering as the frosty wind made everything a little bit colder. Despite the weather, Galeb was proud to be outside.
I’m married and I think he should be married too,” Galeb pointing to her brother.
Marriage Equality New York (MENY) and the Metropolitan Community Church co-sponsored a Valentine’s Day rally in front of the building where marriage licenses are routinely handed out and drew a crowd of about 50. This year’s gathering came approximately a year after Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan’s ruling in favor of same-sex couples who had been denied marriage licenses in 2004. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg appealed the judge’s decision, saying while he supported gay marriage, he wanted to make sure the city was on solid legal ground before it began to issue certificates to same-sex couples.
The Appellate Division overturned Ling-Cohan this past December; on February 7, Lambda Legal filed papers with the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, asking for the judges to overturn the Appellate Division.
Bloomberg was roundly criticized for his appeal, but Tim Dubitsky, MENY’s director of events, thinks the mayor will do the right thing in his second and final term.
“He has been supportive in the past and I think now with Christine Quinn in place we are looking forward to working together for the cause,” Dubitsky said, referring to the new City Council speaker, an out lesbian.
In a Gay City News interview, Bloomberg expressed a wish that his appeal does lose.
“My hope is that the court will say that it is legal under the Constitution,” the mayor said in a December 13 interview.
With Valentine’s Day balloons, MENY members and their supporters passed out mini-pamphlets explaining that same sex couples “are denied over 1,138 federal rights and obligations.” Katie Norris was bundled up and greeted everyone with a smile as she passed out the material. One woman, with bright red hair that matched the day’s heart theme, took one and gave it a quick glance.
“I would rather see them be happy than the other way. God bless them,” the woman said as she walked away and disappeared in the crowd.
For Norris the same-sex marriage debate is part of any conversation about equality.
“I’m here to support equal rights in general and today especially equal rights for marriage,” she said.
Some gay participants, however, wanted it known they had quibbles with the whole marriage drive. Longtime activist Randy Wicker stood with a photo of his partner, who died in 1990, passing out slips arguing that “marriage is a religious sacrament” and gays should seek civil unions and demand “equality before law. Our relationships should have the same validity as other unions.”
Aside from this, the rally was a low-key affair and people accepted the handouts and balloons. This was not the original plan. The Reverend Pat Bumgardner, MCC’s pastor, originally planned to lead protesters in a take-over of the wedding chapel down the hall from the Marriage Bureau as she did last year, risking arrest. But she said that talks with partners in a new state network for marriage rights led her to scale back the action and just perform the ceremonies for one lesbian and one gay male couple in the bureau’s hallway.
Bumgardner is not sure she did the right thing.
“I cooperated with people in community who are leading the struggle for judicial recognition of same-sex marriages and feel if we did something like chain ourselves to the chapel door it would hurt their cause,” she said. “Representatives of Lambda and Freedom to Marry said an action like that could reflect negatively to the people who will decide the case,” referring to the Court of Appeals judges who will ultimately rule on the constitutionality of New York’s law that the city says limits marriage to opposite-sex couples.
Evan Wolfson, director of Freedom to Marry, advised MENY and MCC not to have a fight with the city clerk. But even having tamped down a more militant action, he was not enthusiastic about the efficacy of Tuesday’s demonstration.
“What’s needed is not a once a year demonstration,” Wolfson said. “We have an opportunity to have a much greater impact by going out and engaging opinion makers and groups of New Yorkers on this issue. The next several months are crucial because we have to create a climate that shows New Yorkers are ready for it.”
At the Marriage Bureau, there was a respectful standoff between Mike McSweeney, the first deputy clerk, and Bumgardner and the two couples. Immediately after the action, Bumgardner called a meeting for Tuesday, February 21 at 7 p.m. at her church at 446 W. 36th St. to discuss an escalation in tactics.
“We as a community are going to give our political leaders and legal people a year and if we don’t get legal recognition of same-sex marriages by then, I’m doing civil disobedience,” she said. “We’re not going to have any choice.”
While the action Tuesday morning remained relatively placid, same-sex marriage is increasingly becoming a political football in the race for governor. This week, Republican gubernatorial hopeful William Weld announced that if elected he would veto a gay marriage bill if it came across his desk. The former Massachusetts governor has had a few changes of heart on the topic. When the Bay State became the only one in the union to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, Weld was an enthusiastic supporter. When his name first came up late last summer as a viable candidate for the GOP nomination to replace Republican Governor George Pataki, Weld said that he agreed with the marriage ruling in Massachusetts but did not find the same basis for gay marriage in the New York Constitution. As reported by the Daily News, Weld is now going out of his way to contrast his posture with that of the likely Democratic candidate, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Weld is quoted as saying, “Eliot Spitzer has announced that on the first day as governor he would file legislation to legalize same-sex marriage."
Weld’s hopes for the Republican nomination and a clean shot at Spitzer have been complicated by threats in recent weeks from the small, but influential Conservative Party that it might nominate its own candidate for governor rather than supporting the GOP standard bearer. Pundits read Weld’s repositioning as an effort to placate the Conservatives.
Additional reporting by Andy Humm.
Joe Moran, 25, and Ron Zacchi, 29, of Marriage Equality, partners for a year, on Chambers Street at the beginning of a short march to the Municipal Building on Centre Street Valentine's Day morning.