How can New York, a key leader in the global fashion, economic and political worlds, still prohibit marriage between homosexual couples in the 21st century? This is the question that many supporters of equal rights for members of the gay community have been asking for years.
Local Presbyterian minister Robert Stewart is one of those supporters, as he came out as a homosexual to his congregation many years ago. “It was helpful to me personally,” Pastor Stewart shared, “and I felt better about myself.” Though retired now, Pastor Stewart’s leadership of the church in Amagansett meant that his announcement met no opposition from his congregation.
Many members of the gay rights movement felt their hope particularly renewed when the New York legislature debated the potential passage of the Marriage Equality Act over the past two weeks. After two years of the New York State Assembly passing the bill only to have it defeated in the state Senate, this month the renewed debates Upstate made it a real possibility that the Empire State could join the ranks of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and Washington, DC in legalizing gay marriage.
New York has long been a leader in its acceptance of alternative lifestyles. The City’s flamboyant gay pride parades rival Provincetown and San Francisco for their colorful displays, while here on Long Island youth of many different sexual orientations have been increasingly fighting for acceptance. On June 16, Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) held a prom for 150 young gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths. The event allows students to experience their prom in an accepting atmosphere. The first LIGALY prom in 2001 received attention from media sources around the world because it was the first such event held in the United States.
As part of the theatre clique in a very liberal Long Island high school, I knew several young people who came to identify with alternative sexual orientations through the years. In this accepting atmosphere, homosexuality just seemed like something unique to be embraced, rather than shunned.
But in the wider world of politics, the portrayal of homosexuality is not always so rosy, especially in the eyes of New York’s religious leaders. The American ideal of the separation of church and state seemed to lose importance these past few weeks as religious groups of all beliefs expressed strong opposition to the marriage proposition. Among them were the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, Agudath Israel of New York (representing Orthodox Jews), and the New York State Catholic Conference (as well as the New York Archbishop). Their arguments focus on the supposed spiritual sanctity of a marriage between a man and woman specifically.
Another issue members of the opposition have brought up is the possible threat this action would pose for children by confusing the idea of a traditional family. But with so many marriages ending in divorce, and so many heterosexual families suffering from all sorts of problems, it is difficult to understand how this ideal is not under assault already. How can allowing more people to get married and enjoy the benefits of a legal union contribute to the problem? If anything, it is hard to understand how anyone can condemn homosexual couples, some of whom have stayed together for decades without the legal bond of marriage to unite them.
The major contention for the religious groups in New York focused upon the possibility of future legal action being taken against them if they seemed to discriminate against homosexual couples. Legislators discussed ways to assuage these fears, even considering the possibility of including language in the Act to prevent such lawsuits from taking place.
Yet the issues that the religious groups raise resound strongly with many people across the country. Though we claim to value a distinction between our government and our spiritual belief, polls have consistently shown that the United States actually has a higher rate of religious service attendance than does much of Europe. This stronger devotion lets certain religious groups influence political decisions, and quite unfortunately here. The idea a country composed of so many different spiritual persuasions, from Christians to Jews to Muslims to Atheists, could allow its decisions on ideas of equality to be based on the prevailing religious thought of the time is ludicrous. Though marriage has traditionally been between a man and a woman, extending the ability to new couples will not devalue the religions in any way. Everyone can believe what they want to believe and act as they see fit, without affecting anyone else. The gay community is just asking to be treated the same as everybody else, to be allowed to publicly declare their commitment to another person in the eyes of the law. To receive healthcare benefits from their partner. To have a say in their loved one’s end-of-life care.
But as religious radicals were protesting the approaching vote, other groups lent their support to the motion. Earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church joined other Protestant denominations by allowing openly gay individuals to become clergy members. Pastor Stewart was happy to see the change in official Church doctrine. He shared that he’s “definitely in support of equality of marriage,” eagerly watching the recent developments in the New York Legislature.
Long Island Republican Kenneth LaValle reiterated his opposition to the proposed Marriage Equality Act, while upstate Republican Roy McDonald issued a vehement statement in support of the measure, saying that “you get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing…You might be very cynical about that. Well, f*** it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.” Mayor Bloomberg made a trip upstate during this recent period of debate to try to persuade undecided legislators to support the proposition.
Then, a little over a week ago and in the heat of debate, the United Nations chimed in on the conversation surrounding homosexuality. On June 17, just days before the New York Legislature finalized its own opinion on the topic; the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution supporting equality for everyone—including gay, lesbian, and transgender people. The very close vote faced opposition from numerous countries, including Russia and Pakistan.
With such a controversial and hot atmosphere surrounding this situation, the state of New York’s decision, delayed from June 20 to June 24, will mark an important turning point for the movement.
If passed in New York, “Another step forward would be for it to be accepted at the federal level,” Pastor Stewart shared. So the question that remains is whether or not other states, or even the country, may soon follow suit. [/expand]