It’s Time for Marriage Equality

Newsday Op-ed January 6, 2011

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said this should be the year marriage equality comes to New York.

Our state once had a right to boast when it came to civil rights with respect to marriage – it was one of only nine states that never enacted anti-miscegenation laws, which banned blacks from marrying whites. But we’re no longer a leader when it comes to ensuring that all citizens are entitled to the protections afforded by the civil institution of marriage.

While the State Assembly has passed marriage equality legislation several times, the State Senate failed to follow suit, voting against it in December 2009. The bill was defeated 38-24, with eight Democrats and every Republican in opposition.

That vote didn’t reflect the public will: A 2009 Siena Poll showed that New Yorkers favor same-sex marriage by a margin of 53 percent to 39 percent. But change comes slowly in Albany.

Suffolk County Legis. Jon Cooper, who knows the politics of our state all too well, didn’t wait for the State Senate vote to marry his partner of 30 years, Rob Cooper, in April 2009. “Even though we’ve lived together for three decades and raised five children, we couldn’t marry in New York,” says Cooper, who held his wedding in Connecticut. “We’re still considered second-class citizens in our own state.”

What’s at stake here isn’t just a question of social justice – though, of course, it is that, too. But Ross Levi, executive director of the advocacy group Empire State Pride Agenda, explains that the inability to be legally married denies same-sex couples 2,462 rights and responsibilities that the state and federal governments automatically give to married couples.

The real-life consequences are numerous. If one partner in a same-sex couple dies – even if the pair has lived together for decades – the other will not receive survivor Social Security or pension benefits. Survivors might have to pay inheritance taxes on the home they’ve shared with their partner – an amount that has been known to make it prohibitive to remain in the place they’ve lived for many years. And they could lose the children whom they’ve parented to legally recognized relatives.

Ask people if they believe in equal protections in housing, job security and other issues for gay people, and a majority answer yes. So what is it about marriage that they find disturbing?

The arguments tend to echo certain themes: biblical texts are often cited, but the Bible also contains passages supporting polygamy and other practices now deemed unacceptable. In addition, religious institutions wouldn’t be forced to perform marriages for gay or lesbian couples, no more than the Catholic Church is required to accept divorce.

Others speak of protecting the sanctity of marriage, but just how they’ve concluded that allowing committed, same-sex life partners to marry will threaten heterosexual unions is hard to fathom. Our culture supports marriage, seeing it as a means to provide a positive environment for children and for society at large. Why we’d prevent any couple from becoming part of that stabilizing force is puzzling. People who believe their own marriage is weakened by the marriage of a couple like Jon and Rob Cooper – who, unlike several outspoken critics of marriage equality, have never been divorced – might want to add marriage counseling to their 2011 resolutions.

Like Gov. David A. Paterson before him, Cuomo has now put this issue on his agenda. Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) has said he would recommend that the same-sex marriage bill return to the floor of Senate this year (although he’s also on record saying he would vote against it). It’s time for New York to re-embrace its history as a leader on marriage equality.