And Civil Rights
For gay couples, battle to wed is about social equality.
By MICHAEL LANZA
May 15 the California Supreme Court shook the
country in a 4-3 decision, declaring the state's
same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional - essentially
legalizing gay marriage, the second state after
Massachusetts to do so, and putting a spotlight
on the contentious issue once again.
It's been framed as a battle of semantics - how
our society defines marriage. But for those whose
lives and relationships are held in limbo, it's
Gilbert (l.) and Murdoch Matthew (r.) display
their wedding rings. The couple was wed
"The word symbolizes absolute equality," Ellen
Lewin, a Queens raised professor of anthropology
at the University of Iowa, said. "It was very
empowering to be treated like everyone else,"
Lewin said of her same-sex marriage in Canada.
In New York, the decision is giving new vigor
to gay-rights activists after a disappointing
conclusion to the state's own efforts to legalize
"Thank god someone finally saw it for what it
is," Cathy-Marino Thomas, the executive director
for Marriage Equality New York, said. The Queens
native was married to her partner of 15 years,
Sheila, in Provincetown, Mass. in 2005.
The New York bill, which would have recognized
same-sex civil marriages while preserving the
right of religious institutions to choose whom
to marry, officially died without a vote in the
State Senate in January after passing through
the State Assembly last summer.
"I know that 20 years from now, we will look back
and realize we were on the right side of this
issue. Just like 20 years after the civil rights
movement, many people looked back and thought
that they were on the right side of the issue,"
State Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights)
said in defense of his vote in favor of same-sex
marriage. "Today I have the opportunity to treat
my brothers and sisters in the LGBT (lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transsexual) community not only
with equality and justice, but also with over
1,300 benefits that I receive as a married man."
The Queens assemblymembers voted overwhelmingly
in favor of the bill, approved by a margin of
85 to 61. Of the 18 elected representatives, only
three voted against the measure - Margeret Markey
(D-Maspeth), Anthony Seminerio (D- Richmond Hill)
and Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village).
"Any bill that has come before us that would make
life what it's supposed to be for people just
because of who they are, because of their sexual
orientation, I have supported because I don't
think that people should be discriminated against
based on their sexual orientation," Clark said.
"But at some point, in my mind, you get to a point
where it just goes beyond what I think is a real
workable situation in the State of New York and
this nation. I still believe that there is a reason
for what we call reproduction, to repopulate our
nation, and we won't be able to - same-sex couples
cannot do that."
In the State Senate, Clark's argument was taken
a step further by the conservative majority -
who prevented the bill from being voted on.
"I'm absolutely opposed to it," State Sen. Serphin
Maltese (R-Glendale) said. "The bill undoes 2,000
years of history and tradition. Marriage is a
sacrament," he said. "There's a big difference
between discrimination and same-sex marriage.
Where you have discrimination, I'm voting in favor
"Recognition that (same-sex) marriage should be
on the same level - It isn't something we should
focus on right now," Maltese said. "If you ask
any of my constituents, an overwhelming majority
will say they're opposed to same-sex marriage."
their Irish roots, Tom Molton (l.) and Brendan
Fay (r.) wore kilts to their 2003 wedding
But a 2007 study by Siena College suggested New
Yorkers are much more evenly divided than some
would have you believe. The poll found that 43
percent of New Yorkers supported same-sex marriage,
while 47 percent opposed it. The divide fell almost
exclusively along political and religious lines,
the poll said, with mostly democrats supporting
same-sex marriage and a majority of republicans
and independents who identified closely with their
religion opposing the bill.
"It's mostly politics," Peralta said of lawmakers
opposing the bill. "They started making it more
personal, using the argument of personal upbringing."
But the argument of upholding tradition holds
as much weight as past arguments for historic
injustices for many same-sex couples.
"It's an empty argument with no backup," Thomas
said. "It's merely another inequality - as it
was with slavery, as it was with women voting."
For gay couples it's not about trampling on tradition,
it's about living their lives as equals - with
all the benefits the word marriage affords.
"People can't seem to separate civil rights from
religious rights. We're looking for marriage on
a civil level only," Thomas said. "If you put
the word marriage on it, everyone knows what it
means. There's a big difference when you say,
'that's my domestic partner,' and when you say
'that's my wife.'"
Thomas and other same-sex couples are confident
that people will come around eventually. "Not
only will they see the logic of it, they will
see the common sense of it. Society is coming
to the issue now and seeing it as an equality
issue," she said.
But Thomas admits that acceptance won't come easy.
"We have a long way to go," she said.