Following weeks of negotiations and uncertainty, New York became the sixth state in the union, and the largest, to legalize marriage equality on June 24, 2011. (The District of Columbia also permits same-sex couples to marry.) The Republican-led state Senate, having extended its legislative session, worked late into the night to pass the Marriage Equality Act by a vote of 33–29, and Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) was standing by to sign the bill at 11:55 p.m. Same-sex couples will be able to apply for a marriage license beginning on July 24, 2011, when clerks’ offices in New York City, Binghamton, and Syracuse will open on a Sunday to give same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain a marriage license as soon as the new law goes into effect. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage, explained that “[t]his is a historic moment for New York, a moment many couples have waited years and even decades to see . . . and we are not going to make them wait one day longer than they have to.” In addition, volunteer judges will be available to grant couples waivers to New York’s mandatory 24-hour waiting period between obtaining a marriage license and getting married, as well as being able to preside over the marriage ceremonies. Mayor Bloomberg has also directed clerks’ offices in New York City to remain open two hours beyond their typical closing time until July 29 in order to accommodate the anticipated increased demand for marriage licenses.
Efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in New York began in the Hudson Valley town of New Paltz in 2004, when then-president George W. Bush’s mention of marriage as being between a man and a woman in his State of the Union address prompted Mayor Jason West to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of state laws. Following a year-long court battle, the marriages were eventually nullified. Advocates of marriage equality were dealt another blow in July 2006, when the state Court of Appeals ruled that the New York constitution does not guarantee same-sex couples the right to marry, in a particularly damaging decision that described “homosexuality as a preference rather than an orientation” and asserted that relationships between same-sex couples fundamentally are different from those between male-female couples. Legislative efforts were similarly disappointing, as marriage equality bills passed the New York State Assembly in 2007 and 2009 but did not pass in the state Senate. In addition, former Governor David Paterson (D) explored the possibility of introducing legislation to legalize same-sex marriage during the “lame-duck” legislative session following the 2010 elections, but was unable to garner sufficient support.
The 2011 effort to pass marriage equality legislation was spearheaded by Governor Cuomo, who “campaigned on the issue in the race for governor” in 2010 and believes that the issue “is at the heart of leadership and progressive government.” He solicited donations and promises of future support from prominent Republican donors in order to assuage the concerns of Republican legislators who feared conservative backlash. In addition, Governor Cuomo worked with Republican legislators to craft provisions protecting from litigation religious institutions that refuse to perform same-sex marriages and sparing them from state government penalties, such as loss of funding for social service programs they administer.
Governor Cuomo also encouraged organizations that advocate same-sex marriage to work together under the auspices of an umbrella organization, New Yorkers United for Marriage. Those organizations mobilized their supporters to contact legislators who previously had voted against same-sex marriage or had publicly stated their intention to oppose the legislation, an effort that proved invaluable. For example, despite polls indicating that a majority of New York residents support same-sex marriage, state Senator Joseph P. Addabbo Jr. (D–Queens), one of the last Democrats to oppose same-sex marriage, informed Governor Cuomo that in his district, the “numbers were not there.” In response, New Yorkers United for Marriage set out to, in the words of one leader, “[b]ury him in paper” from his constituents, collecting over 2,000 postcards and generating almost 5,000 calls to his office from same-sex marriage supporters. Ultimately, the overwhelming show of support for marriage equality led Senator Addabbo to vote for the Marriage Equality Act.
The seven-year struggle for marriage equality in New York ultimately succeeded due to numerous factors, including the tireless work of dedicated advocates, political savvy, personal connections, and the passage of time, which allowed legislators to weigh the issue and ultimately led to their opinions evolving. The organizations that formed New Yorkers United for Marriage bombarded their supporters with pleas to contact their legislators until the deciding vote was cast. Governor Cuomo’s passion and ability to reach across the aisle to garner the necessary Republican support were vital. Finally, many legislators weighed their personal convictions and received input from family and friends, leading some to come to the same decision as state Senator Roy J. McDonald (R–Troy) who, facing a barrage of questions from reporters after signaling his intent to vote in favor of marriage equality, defiantly said, “I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.”
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Danny Hakim, “Exemptions Were Key to Vote on Gay Marriage,” New York Times, 25 June 2011, accessed 12 July 2011, <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/nyregion/religious-exemptions-were-key-to-new-york-gay-marriage-vote.html?_r=2&ref=nyregion>.
Barbaro, “Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces.”
Danny Hakim, Thomas Kaplan, and Michael Barbaro, “After Backing Gay Marriage, 4 in G.O.P. Face Voters’ Verdict,” New York Times, 3 July 2011, accessed 12 July 2011, <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/04/nyregion/gauging-consequences-for-republicans-who-backed-gay-marriage.html?pagewanted=1&ref=samesexmarriage>.