How Did Activists Win Marriage Equality in N.Y.?

Winnie McCroy READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Securing marriage equality for New Yorkers wasn't a mere stroke of luck; the tireless efforts of many activists and politicians went into this legislative effort. And a panel of them came together at Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe's Midtown offices on Monday, Aug. 1, to discuss some of the highs and lows of this historic victory.

"We mobilized the community in the 2010 election, and said if you're not with us, we're going to take you out," said Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry.

Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters and a LeGal (an LGBT bar association) board member, moderated the panel. Panelists included Alphonso David, deputy secretary for civil rights for Gov. Andrew Cuomo; state Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan); Brian Ellner, senior New York strategist for the Human Rights Campaign; Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda; state Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan) and Solomon.

Socarides asked panelists what the most important factor was in achieving marriage equality. O'Donnell, who introduced the legislation in the state Assembly, noted that the time was right because popular opinion was in favor of marriage equality.

"We had the perfect storm," said O'Donnell. "The polling was at 58 percent, and while politicians may be stupid, they're not stupid. Also, Governor Cuomo had the political will to make this happen. And, for the first time, these entities worked in sync."

Ellner also noted the importance of having the financial and legislative support of Republicans, whom he said donated $1 million. "There was also an extraordinary field effort," he said. "The real heroes were all the grassroots organizations that worked so hard to make sure all the senators heard from their constituents."

David praised the governor's office and fellow advocates for their consistent messaging around the issue, focusing not on civil rights, but rather around the concept of love and family. Levi added that while the polling figures were improved over years of working to change public opinion, Cuomo's support was key.

"The governor would admit it wasn't all him, but if couldn't be possible without him," added David. Other unsung heroes include City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Marty Rouse, national field director for HRC, Bob Perry, former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and his wife Gail, Judge Doris Ling-Cohan (who was in attendance) and the Bar Association.

Another key element, said Duane, who introduced the legislation in the state Senate, was that progress on gay rights was pursued in a way that allowed previous opponents to save face with their constituents.

"In 1999, they said, 'You can't do that, it's impossible, it's dreadful.' That made me want to do it even more," said Duane." After passing the Hate Crimes Act, SONDA (Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act,) and the Dignity for All Students Act, all five state officials were in favor of marriage equality after this continual progress. We allowed people to save face; they were given the time and space to do this. We were in a hurry, but we let them do their thing. The governor used the advantage of his office well, and we did everything right."

Socarides spoke well of Cuomo's commitment to marriage equality, and his ability to sway his colleagues without strong-arming them. By making opponents publicly commit to support the measure, he secured the votes of state Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) and other undecided opponents who helped shift the balance.

David noted that when he worked with Cuomo at the Attorney General's office, he had talked about including marriage equality in his policy.

"What surprised me was that he prioritized this among his top three goals for the state," said David. "He thought it was an injustice that had to be addressed if New York was to return to being a leader. After the budget, we did have internal meetings about the legislative priority and timing of this. He knew the time was right."

At a March meeting about marriage equality, advocates said that they agreed to work smartly and strategically and to keep disagreements between LGBT factions within the room.

Levi said that while these groups worked together on many issues, individual factions focused on different areas. The Pride Agenda handled faith and the pulpit, while HRC created the video project changing public opinion around marriage equality.

The approach differed between the Assembly and Senate as well.

O'Donnell said that he worked hard every day to eventually add 69 more co-sponsors to his bill. "I knew [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver would get the votes...and I had the monumental support necessary for getting the vote through my chamber," he said.

Duane said that as the lead sponsor in the Senate, he had to work hard to secure the support of his colleagues.

It Was a "Waiting Game"
Religious objections also played a role.

David was pleased that the exemptions covered only religious groups, not individuals. In this way, he said, nothing in the law restricted First Amendment rights allowing individuals to circumvent the law. He noted that if the exemption was too broad, it would affect heterosexual couples' rights, as well.

"It was a waiting game," added Solomon. "Our confidence level went from high to sitting with the governor and wondering how we would get the votes. The worse things got, the more willing we were to accept the language. We wanted to see gay couples married, and we knew that once last Sunday had happened, the state was transformed; there was no going back. But there were a lot of nervous moments."

Levi noted the importance of women's groups, unions and other allies in getting the legislation passed. Solomon added that after building this political power, the next question was how the state's LGBT movement could use it smartly for the next battles: to protect LGBT youth, seniors, and transgender New Yorkers.

"We have had lessons learned, and take great heart that things like the Dignity for All Students Act passed with gender expression and identity in it," said Duane. "So when it comes to future legislation, at this point, it's not an if, it's a when."

by Winnie McCroy , EDGE Editor

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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