Gay Marriage Takes Giant Step in New York State

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 14, 2009

After a few weeks of dancing around the subject, New York Governor David Paterson will announce that his administration is introducing legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in the Empire State.

Paterson is expected to introduce the bill Thursday. It's the same bill that died in 2007 and opponents are vowing to kill it again.

Paterson has been under pressure since both houses of Vermont's legislature override its Republican governor's veto last week. That means that New York is now surrounded by five jurisdictions--Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut--that allow gay marriage. And there is expected to be a sixth, New Jersey, which already has civil unions, soon.

It's very unusual in New York State for a governor to introduce a bill without being assured in advance that it will pass. But the pressure on Paterson from the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's principle gay-rights group, and certain factions of the state's Democratic Party may have pushed his hand.

Paterson said Tuesday the measure is necessary because gays and lesbians in civil unions are denied 1,200 to 1,350 civil protections such as health care and pension rights since they're not married.

"The timing was always right. It's just who is willing to take that step, and I am," Paterson said. "I think it is, as other states are showing, the only ethical way to treat people who want to live together in peace under the civil law. So my general feeling about all these issues is the right ethical decision will inevitably be the right political decision."

Eliot Spitzer, who was governor before Paterson (and whom he succeeded after a prostitution scandal) introduced a gay-marriage bill in 2007 that passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate. But there was a slight GOP majority in the Senate, and in New York politics, that makes all the difference.

New York is essentially run by three people: the governor; the head of the Assembly; and the head of the Senate. The old Senate head was implacably opposed to gay marriage. The new one, Malcolm Smith of Queens, is vocal in his support. The leader of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, is a practicing Orthodox Jew. But the area he represents, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is one of the most liberal, and Silver is nothing if not politically astute; he has implied he will do nothing to oppose the measure.

The problem is in the Senate. Although there is a Democratic majority, at least two if not three Democrats are so opposed to gay marriage that it became the major sticking point in the election of Smith to head the body after last year's election.

Paterson had indicated earlier that the state's budget crisis prevailed over any social engineering. But Vermont (and Iowa) changed all that. Today, the wind appears to be behind the back of marriage advocates.

All of the other important state officials--U.S. Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, Attorney General Cuomo and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg--all support gay marriage.

Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat, said he will attend the announcement and sponsor the governor's bill, which will be identical to the one backed by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer as a civil-rights measure in 2007. "I'm hoping to do better than that this time," O'Donnell said Tuesday.

"I'm very happy the governor has made this a priority," O'Donnell said. "When we got the bill from Governor Spitzer in 2007, we didn't have the votes either. I did that in 2007 and I intend to do that again in 2009."

Mark Hansen, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said Tuesday that, "Our conference is opposed to gay marriage and that has not changed."

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).