In another harsh blow to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights, the New York State Senate voted 38-24 against same-sex marriage legislation in a December 2 session.
The legislation, introduced by Democratic Senator Thomas Duane and supported by Governor David Paterson, would have given full marriage equality to same-sex couples living in New York and had already passed three times in the State Assembly.
The floor fight featured some riveting and very unusual personal testimony and statements from many of the Senators themselves. Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, who voted for the bill, gave an emotional speech on the Senate floor about her late brother, who was gay, and her religious family’s refusal to accept him. She said that although the church would disagree with her decision, she could not deny the LGBT community civil rights.
“Whether you believe it or not, nobody elected me, not even the 99 percent plurality that I’ve received, to be the moral arbiter of their decisions. But they did ask me to provide leadership, and, in that leadership, I hope that the 50 percent of the people, who called my office and said ‘vote no,’ will understand that if they picked me as their leader, then they must trust that the decisions that I helped to make on this floor are about total rights for all of the people that I serve, because the 50 percent who said ‘vote yes,’ they have a right to expect my protection as well. So, Madam President, today I vote ‘yes’.”
“This is a civil rights issue,” Governor Paterson said in a press release. “Marriage equality is as important as the emancipation of any group from oppression and the granting of equal rights to any community.”
Activists and bill supporters were shocked at the loss, particularly because of the wide margin involved. All Republican senators voted in the majority to withhold civil rights from gay New Yorkers, as did eight Democratic senators who crossed party lines to vote against the bill, a move which especially outraged lesbian and gay activists and gay rights organizations who traditionally pump millions of dollars into Democratic party races.
In New York City, thousands of LGBT people and allies gathered in protest of the decision at two rallies, one in Times Square and a second in Union Square. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Governor Paterson, actress Heather Matarazzo and Senator Duane were among those who shared their disappointment in the decision.
“Today’s vote against marriage equality makes me very angry. Promises made were not honored,” said Senator Duane, who charged that particular New York State senators both Democratic and Republican had sworn support for the bill to him in closed-door sessions and then acted against their promises during the actual vote. Duane described himself as “betrayed” at the vote’s result, adding that the LGBT community “and all fair-minded New Yorkers have been betrayed. I am enraged, deeply disappointed and profoundly saddened by the vote today.”
Some LGBT rights activists urged the community to stay the course and look to the future for both local and national marriage parity. “As disappointed as we are today, let’s get up tomorrow and redouble our efforts. We are going to lay the foundation to make people feel comfortable to vote their conscience and not fear political backlash,” Governor Paterson said. Others voiced concern about the strategy of relying on local representatives and communities to vote in marriage equality, and some even questioned the ethics behind allowing a citizenry to vote up or down rights of any sort for any specific minority group. To date, none of the 30-odd times that U.S. citizens have gone to the ballot box to decide on LGBT marriage equality have ended with a victory, the most recent vote occurring in Maine last month.
Eyes are now on New Jersey, where there will likely be a vote on similar legislation on December 10. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine has pledged to sign the bill if it passes in the senate, but Republican Governor-elect Chris Christie opposes same-gender marriage legislation. Christie takes office in January.