New York State of Mind: Gay Marriage in '04 & '11

Steve Weinstein READ TIME: 3 MIN.

The near-universal euphoria here in New York City over the State Senate's passage of a gay-marriage bill, and the swift signing of it into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, brings to mind a time when gay marriage was legal -- at least for a short period --�in two Hudson River hamlets.

I was the editor of the New York Blade at the time. Jason West, then 26, was the mayor of New Paltz, a college town nestled in the hills near the Hudson River roughly between New York City and Albany. West was the Green Party candidate, and his unlikely mayoralty made him a national figure in 2004.

West decided that gay men and lesbians deserved the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. West had been inspired by Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, who had decided to perform gay marriages. When word got out that he was doing it, he and the small town he governed became the focus of international attention.

Not too long thereafter, the mayor of nearby Nyack decided to do the same thing. The mayor of that Hudson River town was gay.

I decided to take a trip to New Paltz to see for myself this extraordinary occurrence.

I rented a car and made the two-and-a-half-hour trip. I parked in downtown New Paltz, such as it is, and started to talk to people. Many of them were students at the State University-New Paltz, the town's main employer. But several others were townspeople.

I remember being frustrated because it was difficult to find anyone who objected to what the mayor was doing. I did finally find an elderly couple that didn't object to his marrying gay couples per se, but believed that he should concentrate on the day-to-day issues that usually occupy a small-town mayor.

The couples' marriages that were married by West were never actually invalidated by a state court, according to a recent article in the New York Times. As for West, he was charged with a couple of nominal misdemeanors. The cases were dropped.

West's life changed, perhaps only for a Warhollian 15 minutes, but it changed.

West, who worked as a housepainter, was named by People Magazine as one of the 50 sexiest men. The bachelor found himself the object of attention by news media (and a few eligible women who read People). He was voted out of office and a Republican voted in; several voters said they resented the international attention the town had received.

West has now won vindication in the state's Legislature. Oh, and he's been voted in to serve another term as mayor of New Paltz. If West hadn't done what he did, who knows whether the wheels would have begun turning in New York's notoriously slow state government?

As for San Francisco Mayor Newsom, he's now a statewide official in California. The wheels he set in motion brought out, for a brief window, legal marriage in California. That window closed with a shocking thud when voters narrowly passed Proposition 8 in November 2008.

The legal maneuvering around that controversial referendum is still going on, although some 18,000 same-sex couples married in California during the narrow window of legal marriage are still legally married.

So, in a twist of fate and a bit of irony, the mayor of a tiny, isolated town, inspired by the mayor of San Francisco, helped set a fire under the voters and legislators of New York State that resulted in gay marriage there.

by Steve Weinstein

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).

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