When news broke late last month that New York Governor David A. Paterson had ordered state agencies to revise their practices to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, the mainstream press treated it as if it were a breakthrough. But as he said, it was "nothing new." Gay and lesbian couples from New York have been going to Canada to marry since Ontario's highest court mandated marriage equality in June 2003, a principal of fairness soon endorsed by a number of other provinces and finally the Canadian Parliament.
And as early as March 2004, then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer released an advisory opinion that in keeping with long-standing precedent New York State should recognize such marriages - a policy gradually adopted by some agencies overseeing public employee pension and health plans in the state government and also by the city of New York. The former attorney general's position was endorsed unanimously by a Buffalo-based Fourth Department appellate panel in February, and is now binding on the whole state, in the absence of any contrary appellate court ruling or an overruling by the Court of Appeals, New York's highest bench.
The fifth anniversary of the historic Canadian victory was celebrated on June 14 by New York gay and lesbian spouses on the steps of City Hall with Justice Harvey Brownstone, the out gay Toronto judge who joined most of those on hand and hundreds of other gay couples in matrimony.
Brendan Fay of Astoria who married Tom Moulton in Toronto a month after it became possible, told the rally, "June 10, 2003 transformed the lives of those [gay couples] not just in Canada, but all over the world because there was no residency requirement" as in Massachusetts that first allowed same-sex couples to marry in 2004. Fay and Moulton, with JesÃºs Lebron, organized the Civil Marriage Trail project to guide American couples seeking to marry in Canada.
Front and center at the rally was our neighbor to the north's flag brought by Canadian Deputy Consul General John McNab, on hand for the celebration. "The maple leaf flag has special meaning for those of us in same-sex couples," said Fay, "because Canada allowed us rights that we're denied in our own home."
Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, who was a plaintiff in the unsuccessful 2006 marriage suit in front of the Court of Appeals and also the lead sponsor in last year's passage of the marriage equality bill in the Assembly, said he will not marry his longtime partner John Banta until they can do it legally here.
"I'm on a mission to make sure that all 85 [members] who voted with us last time are there next year to vote on it again," O'Donnell said. While it will probably need a Democrat take-back of the Senate this November for the bill to move there, he said he saw Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno this week and told him, "My getting married won't have any effect whatsoever on yours and if it does I want you to come over to me and I'll take your hurt away. He [jokingly] put his hands on my neck and I told him, 'If you put them any lower, you'll have to deal with my boyfriend.'"
Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag 30 years ago and a grand marshal of the June 29 LGBT Pride Parade, offered a stirring oration, quoting everyone from Emily Dickenson and John F. Kennedy to Harvey Milk and Madonna, not to mention Barack Obama's "Yes, we can," but in reference to beating back the anti-gay California amendment on the November ballot. On what was also Flag Day, Baker said, "I prefer a man who will burn the flag and then wrap himself in the Constitution rather one who will burn the Constitution and wrap himself in the flag."
Edie Windsor, who married Thea Spyer in Canada after 42 years as partners, said, "We never thought of ourselves as single" before then, but the word "marriage," she said, "is irreducible. It represents the ultimate expression of love and commitment between two people and everyone understands that."
On a hot afternoon, Justice Brownstone spared the crowd a speech, other than acknowledging his "honor as an openly gay judge to be in the city that launched the modern gay and lesbian rights movement." Afterwards in the shade he said, "We've reached the stage in Canada where if you talk about going to a wedding, people ask if it is to a man or a woman. The concept of equality has been embraced smoothly."