Gay marriage is a subject everybody can argue about, according to Karen Taylor: “It’s a hot button issue because everybody understands it. Everybody knows what marriage is.”
Taylor, a lesbian who has lived with her partner in Flushing for the past eight years, is one of many Queens gays and lesbians awaiting word from the state’s highest court on whether they can marry.
Last week, the state Court of Appeals heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by five New York City same sex couples seeking to overturn the section of the state marriage law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The seven member court is expected to make a decision by the end of the month.
The New York state case is one of many wending their way through state and federal courts around the country. One thing that makes this case different, however, is that city officials find themselves on both sides of the issue.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has voiced support for gay marriage if the court rules in favor of it or the law is changed. “I do not believe that government should be in the business of telling people who they can and can’t marry,” he said in a May 28 radio address.
But, since the lawsuit was triggered by an attempt to file for marriage licenses in New York City, the city is a party to the suit and is arguing on behalf of the current law. In a statement, the city’s Law Department said the legislature, not the courts, is the “appropriate venue for mandating change.”
Also taking that position is the New York State Catholic Conference, which filed a brief in support of the current law. “If anyone is going to do this, it should be the legislature,” said spokesman Dennis Poust.
His organization opposes changing the marriage laws, asserting that allowing gays to marry would undermine the institution’s foundation.
“The state interest in marriage is to assist in the stable raising of children,” he said. “There is no other compelling reason for the state to be involved in people’s sex lives.”
President George W. Bush has called for a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage, saying that “the most fundamental institution of civilization” is in danger because of court cases like New York’s. The amendment would prevent state courts, federal courts and state legislatures from legalizing same sex marriages. However, the Senate rejected the amendment Wednesday by a vote of 49 to 48. Voters in 19 states have passed constitutional amendments banning same sex marriage in recent years.
Many of the arguments against gay marriage sound familiar to Taylor, who is executive director of Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a Forest Hills Community House sponsored senior center for gays and lesbians in Jackson Heights. The notion that gay marriage is “unnatural” or sinful were advanced against interracial marriage in the ’60s, she said. “If you take the arguments and mix them up on a paper, you can’t tell the two apart,” she said.
There are some signs that attitudes have changed. A survey by the Pew Research Center in March found that 51 percent of adults nationwide oppose gay marriage. That is 12 percentage points lower than a 2004 poll found, taken shortly after Massachusetts became the first state to sanction same sex marriage.
Gay and lesbian activists say that, with marriage off limits, their unions are on murky legal footing. Charles Ober, a member of the board of directors for Queens Pride House, a center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Woodside, said couples frequently come to the center for help with financial and legal issues.
At SAGE, issues like health care, nursing homes, and wills are a natural concern. “There’s only one nursing home in the city that allows same sex partners to share a room,” Taylor said.
New York City has a domestic partnership law, which the city uses as a guide for employment benefits, public hospital visitation rights and other medical issues. Most private hospitals in the city have internal policies recognizing domestic partners, but when those policies come up against the legal rights of family members—such as a family member barring a partner from visiting—the outcome is uncertain, Ober said.
In addition to the practical aspects, there are more intangible issues. “GLBT people have the same desire for a stable domestic life as anyone,” he said.
Taylor believes the wedding ceremony she and her partner, Laura Antoniou, had in a Manhattan synagogue eight years ago made both their families more comfortable with their relationship by giving a name to it. “There’s a kind of normalization,” she said, adding: “Her mother can show wedding pictures to everybody now.”
The alternatives—like domestic partnerships or civil unions—just don’t have the same ring, or in many jurisdictions, the same legal rights. “Nobody knows what a domestic partnership or a civil union is,” Taylor added.
Another couple who solemnized their union with a ceremony is Christopher Goeken and Glenn Magpantay, of Jackson Heights. After 12 years together, the couple held a commitment ceremony last March that was covered in the New York Times.
One of their concerns is that they have to set up piecemeal the legal ties that would come automatically with marriage. They fear that if a medical or financial crisis arises, they will find they’ve missed something. In addition, while they may be on fairly solid ground under New York law, there is no guarantee that what they have done would hold up in any other state. “We travel with a box of papers,” Magpantay said.
The legal bills to make such arrangements can be considerable. “We’ve spent $2,000 to get what we could get with a $25 marriage certificate,” Taylor said.
SAGE Assistant Director Mickey Helfand is facing a different bill, a $1,000 charge to get her name added to the deed to the condominium she shares in Bayside with her partner of five years—a situation a married couple would not have to face.
There are still many benefits that are out of reach, such as the favorable tax rate and credits offered to married couples.
Magpantay said his law firm was actually willing to change insurance companies so Goeken could get benefits, but couldn’t find one that would do it. That changed with the recent decision by health insurer Oxford to offer insurance to same sex couples, and Goeken is now insured.
Magpantay and Goeken also hope to adopt a child. However, under the current law the only way that can happen is for one of them to adopt as an individual and the other to file separate adoption papers later. “We have to do everything twice,” Magpantay said.
While acknowledging that marriage is important, some gays question whether it is the only issue their community should be focusing on. Goeken works in immigration law and Magpantay is active in the Asian American community, and both said immigration issues, such as recognition of asylum claims by homosexuals, need attention.
Taylor said the topic is the subject of lively debates in the community. Like some heterosexual couples, many gays and lesbians aren’t interested in marriage, while some are content with civil unions.
Others in the community argue that the goal should be to level the playing field between married and single people, both gay and straight, in areas like the tax code and health care.
For her part, Taylor is concerned that the debate on the national level is taking time and attention away from topics like Iraq, immigration, and the economy. “This is not the time for the Senate to be debating this,” she said.
Taylor is in favor of same sex marriage, saying it’s a matter of fairness.
Helfand put it differently. “If we can’t have equality, I want a rebate on my taxes.”