Last week’s failure of the marriage equality bill in the state Senate is devastating to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people in loving relationships who want the full recognition and benefits that come with matrimony. The ongoing discrimination against the LGBT community is a black mark against the State of New York, and a failure of the United States to live up to its claim that all are equal under the law.
But civil rights struggles can take generations to accomplish. A hundred and one years separated the Emancipation Proclamation freeing America’s slaves and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 ensuring suffrage for their descendants — and the struggle for black equality still goes on. Various immigrant groups from the Irish in the mid-1800s to Italians in the early 20th century to South Asians today have had to fight for their proper place in American society, and each battle has had its fits and starts.
Gay people and their supporters should see the Senate vote as only a temporary defeat, and the smartest response is to push for a temporary goal that would mark a significant step toward true equality.
That goal is to establish civil unions in New York State that would carry all the legal, financial and other benefits and responsibilities of marriage. That doesn’t mean full equality, but it would be an important step on the road. And it’s something that could pass the state Senate, where gay marriage was defeated 38-24. Two Democratic senators from Queens, George Onorato of Astoria and Hiram Monserrate of Corona, as well as Republican Frank Padavan of Bellerose, have said they would vote for civil unions. Another Democrat, Joe Addabbo of Howard Beach, is open to the idea —because his constituents are.
That’s the key difficulty in legalizing marriage for loving LGBT couples. Addabbo reports that 74 percent of constituents who contacted his office about the issue advised him to vote no. And the American public as a whole has demonstrated repeatedly that it is not yet ready for gay marriage. Public referenda on the issue have been held in 31 states, and in 31 states marriage equality has been defeated.
Just this week a panel of the New Jersey Senate approved gay marriage by a razor-thin 7-6 margin, but the measure is likely to be defeated in the full Senate. Traditionalists are simply showing more clout than progressives on the issue, there as well as here.
But there was a time when the American public was not ready to have black men and white men drink from the same water fountains, eat at the same lunch counters or stay in the same hotel rooms — a time within living memory. Same-sex marriage proponents need to keep that in mind when pressing for their full rights in the political arena.
Legislation is not the only answer, however. Many of the positive steps that have been taken toward marriage equality in other states have been the result of legal action, as was the case with the civil rights movement. In fact Massachusetts, the first state to allow same-sex marriage, is suing the federal government in an attempt to have marriages conducted in one state recognized in others. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a bipartisan bit of discrimination passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president, says states do not have to recognize those same-sex unions performed elsewhere.
That’s how it is with struggles for equality — two steps forward, one step back, a dance around this obstacle and a leap over that one. Press for a new gay marriage bill soon, but let’s take that half step represented by civil unions first.