06.25.11

New York Passes Gay Marriage: This Is the Tipping Point

The marriage equality fight was a critical test of mainstreaming a cutting-edge issue. John Avlon on how America has finally come to embrace the era's defining civil rights struggle.

If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.

Celebrations erupted in the streets of New York after the Empire State became the sixth and largest state in the nation to legalize same sex marriage after weeks of gridlock and tense debate. There is the sense that this legislative victory marks a tipping point in the larger civil rights fight for marriage equality across the nation.

Albany is rarely the site of high drama—dullness and disappointment are its natural rhythms. It has been named the nation’s “most dysfunctional state legislature” by the Brennan Center at NYU. And that’s not the worst it has been called.

But the national media was paying attention to the palace intrigue in the state capital building over the past two weeks, as pro and con protesters lined the marble halls.

Momentum has been building in favor of freedom to marry in recent days, gaining the crucial support of Republican Senators James Alesi and Roy McDonald, who gained folk-hero status of sorts by saying, "Fuck it. I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing.” But the vote had been delayed multiple times—never a good sign—and no one could say for certain whether the bill would pass until the roll call started.

Late Friday afternoon, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos announced that he would in fact allow the bill to come for a vote. His conference had debated the issue late into the previous night—while President Obama was speaking at a gay fundraiser in New York City—with no resolution. Pivotal legislative language protecting religious organizations and faith-based charities from legal action was finalized only hours before the vote. However imperfect, New York’s provisions retain the separation of church and state in ways that might ease legislation in other states.

Two years ago, when Democrats controlled the state Senate, a same-sex marriage bill went down to a devastating defeat, 38 to 24.

But on Friday night, the final vote was 33-29, with four Republican state senators providing the margin of victory, along with the support of all Senate Democrats except the measure’s most outspoken opponent, Senator Ruben Diaz from the Bronx. The last two “yes” Republican votes were supplied by Senators Mark Grisanti and Stephen Saland, who described his vote of conscience with simple eloquence: “I have defined doing the right thing as treating all persons with equality.”

It is worth appreciating just what changed in the past two years to make this historic vote possible.

Because New York’s population is slightly larger than the five states that currently allow same sex marriage, the number of Americans who will have access to this new freedom to marry will soon double.

First, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of recognizing same sex marriages. In May, the Gallup Poll found that for the first time a majority of Americans supported legalizing gay marriage, aided by a boost from independent voters, whose support increased from 49 percent to 59 percent in the last year alone. The high-profile court case to overturn California’s Prop 8, led by the bipartisan legal team of Ted Olson and David Boies helped depolarize the issue politically, along with the endorsements of former First Lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain. In New York, the Siena Poll showed that 59 percent of union households and 59 percent of Catholics in New York supported marriage equality—crucial voting blocks. To some extent, the politicians were following the people.

Second, the coalition that rallied in support of marriage equality in New York was broad-based and bipartisan. Republican donors provided critical early funding this round and labor unions mobilized alongside leading corporations. In a critical test of mainstreaming a cutting-edge issue, the LGBT activist community was not the only face of this fight—instead, it was a hockey player from the New York Rangers, prominent Republicans and the independent mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. Together, they successfully made the case that this was an issue of human rights and civil rights, not a gay rights issue alone.

Finally, Governor Cuomo made passage of this legislation a personal priority, tying the passage of property tax caps and rent regulations to a public vote on marriage equality. His team was instrumental behind the scenes in building the broader coalition, reaching beyond typical Democratic constituencies. In the first six months of his term, Andrew Cuomo has proven that Albany is indeed governable. He balanced the budget on time and without raising taxes. He passed a property tax cap and much-needed ethics reform. Marriage equality was the capstone of this productive legislative session. Cuomo has pursued an essentially centrist approach, working across the aisle to pursue policies that can be broadly described as fiscally conservative but socially liberal. He has been rewarded with sky-high approval ratings, exceeding 70 percent, among the highest for any governor in the nation.

The Empire State building was lit in rainbow colors after the vote on Friday night and Governor Cuomo quickly signed the bill, meaning it will become law in 30 days. New York is now the largest state in the nation to pass marriage equality by legislation as opposed to court decision, removing one of the chief criticisms offered by social conservatives. And because New York’s population is slightly larger than the five states that currently allow same sex marriage, the number of Americans who will have access to this new freedom to marry will soon double.

This is a time for celebration and appreciation. The system worked. There was debate, persuasion and decision. And in the process, we have reaffirmed some core American values—a commitment to expanding individual freedom, a recognition that separate is not equal and the determination to work together to form a more perfect union.