The New York Senate temporarily ceased being dysfunctional for just a moment to do the right thing and approve extending marriage to same-sex couples.* Governor Andrew Cuomo has to sign the law, but he will. Although marriages won’t take place until a month after the signing, the real fight has been done. (And you can’t beat the symbolism; it happened just as New York Pride Weekend started.)
Cuomo deserves an extraordinary amount of the credit, perhaps even the lion’s share, which is pretty good for a man who, until a year or so before the election indicated that he did not support same-sex marriage. Cuomo is actually the third consecutive Governor to support and fight for same-sex marriage. What makes him different from his predecessors is that Cuomo is a real leader, unlike Eliot Spitzer who was a bull in a china shop and unlike David Patterson whose heart was in the right place but who did not have the right temperament to be Governor. (Given how important the issue was to Patterson, I hope he is invited to the signing ceremony. He deserves it.) Credit must also go to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been a very strong supporter even when the city lawyers had to argue against same-sex marriage. And of course the legislators behind the bill, and the activists, and so on and so forth. I imagine Empire State Pride Agenda’s coffers will be filled by donations starting tomorrow, unlike pretty much every other LGBT organization around the country.
Although New York will be the 6th state in which same-sex couples can wed, the events of tonight are more significant than what happened in every other states thus far except perhaps Massachusetts. The first important (positive) milestone was the 2003 Goodridge decision in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was very brave, and seven-and-a-half years on, it’s easy to forget how overwhelming the vitriol was that was directed at the Court and at the LGBT community. I was there. It got really bad. Nevertheless, as time passed, it turned out that same-sex marriage was no big deal. I doubt anyone in Massachusetts even thinks about it anymore, save for those who look back with pride.
Other states followed Massachusetts and equalized their marriage laws through the courts (California, Connecticut, Iowa), but that has always been a somewhat dangerous route because of cries of judicial fiat. The next major milestone was when Vermont, which already had civil unions, equalized their marriage laws through the legislature, doing so over the veto of the then-Republican governor (and the fact that the legislature was able to do it show just shows how much liberal Democrats control Vermont.) Two other states (New Hampshire and Maine) and DC followed suit. Along the way there were the major setbacks in California and Maine followed by the other less major but still difficult setbacks in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Rhode Island. It looked like the fight for equality had stalled when Rhode Island could only manage a civil union bill (which is still in doubt.)
But New York is monumental for a number of reasons. First is just the sheer size of the state, and its overall importance (especially New York City) to both the country and the world. Unlike California, there is no citizens’ initiative process. This law is here to stay. Second, the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court) found that the state constitution did not require marriage rights to be extended to same-sex couples, which meant that the legislature was the only option (always a dangerous prospect, in New York especially.) Third, LGBT advocates had been trying to get same-sex marriage in New York for years, always failing at the Senate. Finally, and most significantly, is that the New York Senate is controlled by Republicans. Although the vast majority of tonight’s yea votes came from the state Democrats (all except one, the odious Ruben Diaz), it could not have passed without Republican votes. This marks the first time that a Republican-controlled house voted in favor of same-sex marriage, and that reason alone is why New York is so important. It is inevitable that same-sex marriage will become a reality. Republicans no longer have unanimity on this issue, so it can no longer be a wedge issue. The tide has irrevocably turned.
Moreover, this is going to put pressure on legislatures in other states, particularly those dominated by Democrats, specifically Maryland, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Delaware, Washington, Oregon, and Illinois (and New Jersey when Governor Unpopular is replaced.) Maine and California are also on the horizon when the dust clears.
This is not to say that the change will happen immediately, but the corner has been turned. As New York goes, so goes the nation. Tomorrow there will be a lavender dawn.
* See what I did there. We’re not talking about a new right or a special right. All we want are the same legal rights and recognitions given to straight couples.