BY PAUL SCHINDLER | The news that same-sex marriage had begun in Oregon earlier in the day — as the result of a federal court ruling the state will not appeal — added an extra element of festiveness to Marriage Equality USA’s May 19 New York gala. And that was without the foreknowledge of a court ruling the following day ordering
marriage equality in Pennsylvania, a decision that surprisingly is also not being appealed.
But the event, held at Midtown’s Copacabana near Times Square, also highlighted the fact even on an occasion focused specifically on the goal of winning equal marriage rights, there was significant concern about the broader issue of what MEUSA executive director Brian Silva termed “lived equality.”
Among the evening’s honorees was Mayor Bill de Blasio, awarded recognition as an “ally,” a term he said he was happy to earn.
“This is such a noble fight, and one that we need to fight all over the country until it is won,” he said of the push for equal marriage rights.
The mayor, however, quickly pivoted to other, more comprehensive concerns.
“We are trying to create one city,” he said, noting that New York “has been a place where people didn’t always feel included.”
Noting the persistence of discrimination as well the spate of anti-LGBT violence that swept the city in the spring of 2013, de Blasio said the appropriate response is to “call it out at the moment of occurrence. Don’t ever let it be accepted.
Another honoree, Cathy-Marino Thomas, who will leave her longstanding position on the group’s board this summer, also integrated her discussion of marriage equality into bigger themes.
Recalling her activism on the marriage issue, which dates to the late 1990s, she said, “It’s been an incredible 17 years. When we started this work, no one wanted to even entertain the possibility that we could have the right to marry.” She singled out for praise her friend Edie Windsor, the successful plaintiff in last year’s Defense of Marriage lawsuit at the Supreme Court, for “suing the shit out of the US government.”
Marino-Thomas moved on from there to a larger message.
“Beyond marriage is a much bigger victory to be won: comprehensive federal civil rights legislation,” she said. “LGBT Americans deserve the legal protections that are given to every other American. Now is the time to achieve full equality in all 50 states by adding four words, four simple, inclusive words — sexual orientation and gender identity — to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Then in a jab at the long-stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the key agenda item for LGBT lobbying efforts in Washington, Marino-Thomas said, “Don't be fooled — ENDA doesn't do that. ENDA is not equal, and together we can pledge to make a better bill.”
Her comments reflected growing unease, both among grassroots activists and legal advocates, about ENDA’s shortcomings — not only in its exclusive focus on employment, in contrast to the broader protections in housing, public accommodations, and other areas afforded by the 1964 Act, but also in the scope of the religious exemptions it includes. Evan Wolfson, an attorney who heads up Freedom to Marry, has characterized the exemption language as “a license to discriminate.”
In her critique of ENDA, Marino-Thomas echoed the feelings of activists who gathered outside the Copacabana — and also outside a Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network fundraiser the same evening — handing out flyers headlined “ENDA IS NOT EQUAL!” The activists were affiliated with Queer Nation and the American Equality Bill Project, a group that seeks to add sexual orientation and gender identity protections to the 1964 Act, which already provides protections based on race, ethnicity, and gender, among other categories.
In his remarks, Silva did not specifically address the ENDA controversy, but he did make clear that the fight for equality extends beyond securing marriage rights. Talking about the desire to travel with his family to North Carolina and have their dignity recognized, he said, “Our goal is lived equality.”
Other honorees included the Imperial Court of New York, which has raised millions of dollars on behalf of a broad range of LGBT groups since its founding in 1986, and Love & Pride, an online retailer that offers a diverse line of jewelry products and accessories suited to LGBT people and couples and donates a portion of its sales to community organizations.
The event drew a crowd of roughly 200 and raised $60,000.
With Oregon and Pennsylvania, marriage equality is now the law in 19 states and the District of Columbia, which comprise 44 percent of the US population. In the past five months, federal courts have struck down curbs on equal marriage rights in nine additional states, which have filed appeals, and a state court in Arkansas recently threw out that state’s ban on gay marriage, a decision being appealed to the State Supreme Court.
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