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gender & sexuality | government | human & civil rights

Just Married? Not Yet for Dozens of Gay Couples in New York

I love NY, but I don't like the fact that they are denying people the right to marry!
Just Married? Not Yet for Dozens of Gay Couples in New York
By CHRISTINE HAUSER
and JANON FISHER

Published: March 4, 2004


Undeterred by the rain and a new opinion by the state attorney general that same-sex couples cannot be legally married in New York, dozens of gay men and women tried to get marriage licenses today at the municipal building in Manhattan.

Hundreds of other people turned out in support, some holding umbrellas, others carrying placards calling for equality in marriage laws. But all the gay couples who asked for marriage licenses were turned down by the city clerk, who handed out a letter that said the law does not authorize it.

Marchers circulated in front of City Hall in a peaceful demonstration, which then became a symbolic opportunity to express a message similar to that heard elsewhere in the United States in a growing movement among same-sex couples who seek to be married.

One couple, Elisabeth Jay and Kathryn Jay, who have been together for more than four years, were turned down by the clerk today, but they saw some ray of hope.

``On the positive side, they told us to come back next week, that maybe things will be different,'' Elisabeth Jay said, speaking into a megaphone to the marchers.

``Where is Bloomberg?'' the crowd chanted, referring to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Among the couples hopeful for a licensed marriage were two men in black tuxedos, huddled under an umbrella.

The protest and the push for same-sex marriage licenses follows two and a half weeks of work by grass-roots groups in the city's gay and lesbian community, according Andrew Miller, one of the protest organizers.

He said that the purpose of the gathering today was to protest the mayor's decision not to allow same-sex marriages and to press the issue with the city clerk's office.

By 8:30 a.m. when the clerk's office opened, the line for marriage licenses stretched from the door back 50 feet, with almost all the people same-sex couples hoping to fill out the form.

Many anticipated that they would not be allowed to apply for a marriage license, but they characterized their effort as an opening salvo for equal marriage rights for gay people.

``We're not living in a fantasy world,'' said Judith Tax, 61, a psychotherapist in Manhattan, who was there with her fianc└e, Rabbi Nancy Wiener, 45, a teacher at Hebrew Union College. ``We're not a scary horde out to destroy the community, we want to participate.''

Rabbi Wiener said that the couple was already joined as domestic partners, an alternative offered by the clerk's office in its letter to same-sex couples, but that that and other legal options do not go far enough.

``We have 11 pieces of paper here,'' the rabbi said, listing the documents that she and her partner of 17 years carry with them to attest to their union. ``Detailed wills, health care proxies, durable powers of attorney, but they don't extend us the rights that one minute of marriage does.''

The application for a domestic partnership costs $36, one dollar more than the application for a marriage license, a fact that the protesters cited as further proof of inequities in the system.

``We have to pay more, without getting the same rights,'' Ron Goldberg, 45, shouted into a megaphone as the crowd pressed in around him in the center of the protest area.

The crowd responded with the chant, ``Pay more for less, pay more for less.''

Couples described the clerk's office as ``cordial'' though it would not hand out blank marriage applications.

Some couples employed stratagems. Leslie Fenton, 23, and Ann Cardillo, 26, of Brooklyn, teamed with two gay men, with Ms. Fenton and one of the men requesting a form as a heterosexual couple. Ms. Fenton then filled it out with Ms. Cardillo and submitted it to the clerk. The clerk's office, however, refused to process the application, saying the couple had improperly obtained the form.

``The irony is that having filed as a male/female couple having just met several seconds previously, we could be married within 24 hours,'' Ms. Fenton noted.

Journalists were not allowed into the building to witness the scene.

On Wednesday, New York's attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, said in a legal opinion that New York State law does not now permit such marriages to be performed in the state. But he also said that the law requires same-sex marriages that are legally performed in other states to be recognized as lawful in New York.

Mr. Spitzer said that state marriage laws recognizing only unions between a man and a woman raise ``serious constitutional concerns'' that will ultimately have to be resolved by the courts. Until the courts rule, he said, same-sex couples cannot be legally married here.

He said his opinion that the state is legally sound in withholding marriage licenses is intended to try to halt the growing push by people who are seeking to change the law by performing same-sex marriages. ``One of the messages I was trying to send was, don't do it,'' said Mr. Spitzer, a Democrat, who is widely discussed as a possible candidate for governor in 2006.

The overall legal opinion was nonetheless hailed by gay rights groups as ``monumental,'' and it set the stage for gay couples in New York who have been married elsewhere to begin challenging the state to grant them the privileges of marriage.

But not all the protesters at today's rally were impressed by the attorney general's interpretation of the law. Despite Mr. Spitzer's personal statement supporting amendment of laws that restrict same-sex marriage, Mr. Miller, one of the protest organizers, challenged the attorney general to send a clearer message.

``Eliot Spitzer can't have it both ways - he needs to get off the fence,'' Mr. Miller said. Asserting that the attorney general's opinion allows elected leaders to sidestep the issue of whether marriage should be extended to homosexuals, Mr. Miller, 39, a writer and teacher at Polytechnic University in Manhattan, said, ``Eliot Spitzer is providing political coverage to cowardly politicians.''

A solitary counterprotester, Marvin Knight, 60, stood about 100 feet away from the crowd holding a sign that read, ``God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.''

Mr. Knight, a retired hotel security officer from Brooklyn, said that he was protesting ``these people out here demanding that they pass a law so they can get married.''

``I see it as the beginning of the end,'' he said. ``It goes against the natural order of things. Once you go against the natural order of things, things fall apart.''

Mr. Knight, wearing a leather cowboy hat and leather poncho with thick stitching, fended of constant heckling from passing protesters.

``To me a family is a man and a woman,'' Mr. Knight said. ``God can strike me dead if this sign is false.''

The issue is clearly resonating throughout government and American society at all levels, from towns like New Paltz, N.Y., where the mayor now faces criminal charges from ``solemnizing'' same-sex weddings, to San Francisco, whose mayor prompted the city government to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, to other cities and state capitals and even Washington.

President Bush said last month that the union of a man and a woman is ``the most fundamental institution of civilization,'' and called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

His announcement came after a court in Massachusetts paved the way for same-sex marriages to occur there beginning in May, followed by the San Francisco mayor's action.

New York's governor, George E. Pataki, a Republican, has said in strong terms that he personally believes marriage is between a man and a woman. In the state Capitol, lawmakers recently held a forum on legislation to make same-sex marriages legal.

Mr. Spitzer was drawn into the controversy last Friday after the mayor of New Paltz, Jason West, began performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples who did not have marriage licenses.

Mr. West pleaded not guilty when he was arraigned on misdemeanor charges on Wednesday. He has said he will continue solemnizing such marriages.

The State Health Department has refused to grant the licenses, saying New York law expressly forbids it.

Mr. Spitzer concurred. ``It is our view that the Legislature did not intend to authorize same-sex marriage,'' his opinion said. According to that reading of the law, Mr. Spitzer said, the state is right not to issue marriage licenses, and the ceremonies already performed should be voided.

New York City's Law Department told the city clerk on Wednesday that gay couples should be denied marriage licenses, as City Council members and gay groups increased their pressure on Mayor Bloomberg to take a personal position on same-sex marriages.

``I think that people that want to change the marriage laws should go to Albany; that's where laws are made,'' Mr. Bloomberg said on Wednesday. ``For those that want to grandstand and recommend that we break the law, I think their time would be much better spent in trying to actually effect the change that they say they want rather than just go out there for political purposes.''

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