Last night, the New York State Assembly voted in favor of the Marriage Equality Act, making it the fourth time in three years that the house has passed legislation that would legalize same gender marriage.
The critical next step will be for the State Senate to take up a vote some time before Monday, which is when the regular legislative session ends for the year. The bill itself is what’s called a “program bill,” which means the Governor has directed the legislature to take it up. So not only is there no fear of a gubernatorial veto, it means that Andrew Cuomo has thrown his political capital behind the issue. All of these things are a good sign.
But last night’s vote was entirely too close for comfort. For a bill to pass the NYS Assembly, it requires 76 yes votes. The final vote was 80-63 with 3 abstentions, the closest margin of victory for marriage equality in the Assembly ever. With such slim support in the Senate, we really needed a big victory in the Assembly to push through a bit of momentum. What happened? First, a number of Assemblymembers who had voted yes in the past (Republican and Democrat alike) either lost or decided not to run for re-election. Several Democrats were tapped for Commissionerships and other positions within the Cuomo administration, leaving six vacancies.
Throughout the four hours of debate and voting, many Members stood up to voice their support or concerns about the bill. Deborah Glick spoke of her grandmother, explaining that even though she never officially came out to her, her grandmother was no fool and cared only whether her “friend” was good to her. Danny O’Donnell, the bill’s sponsor, spoke of the discrimination and violence he has faced over the years for being gay and how important legal equality is to righting that.
Many Democrats voted against the legislation, however. Some cited religious beliefs. Assemblymember Dov Hikind angrily stated, “I am openminded, but there are certain things you can’t compromise on.” An Orthodox Jew, he insisted that passing marriage equality would be like throwing the Torah in the garbage. He cited his mother’s time in Auschwitz as indication that he does support human rights but that his conscience wouldn’t let him vote for this legislation.
That was the message from many of the opponents who stood up to speak on the bill, albeit most of them did it without pulling out Goodwin’s Law. They claimed to have gay friends and family members who they care about and would “stand next to” and defend in the face of hate crimes but that they couldn’t possibly vote for marriage equality. Assemblymember Nancy Calhoun was particularly egregious in this regard, name dropping a half dozen legislators who she’s proud to work alongside but failing, in the end, to uphold their rights. In a long, rambling, confusing speech, she said of the passage of the Marriage Equality Act, “I will remember it as a day the State of New York and its Constitution lost something. And I am very sorry that it’s about to happen.”
It wasn’t all bad news, however. Assemblymember N. Nick Perry of Brooklyn, who voted against marriage equality the past three times it reached the Assembly floor, voted yes last night. His explanation rambled much longer than the usual two minutes allotted, and some of his antsier colleagues started audibly heckling him. But after he cast his vote, the chamber erupted into applause, to the point where the Sergeant at Arms had to settle the Members down.
Many other Members spoke eloquently about personal experiences or their relationships with friends and family members that made it impossible to sit idly by while discrimination continued to be carried out. Assemblymember Rory Lancman, a longtime supporter of marriage equality, remarked “As long as there is the stigma that our LGBT neighbors and residents and fellow New Yorkers are unequal in something as fundamental as marriage, there will continue to be violence and harassment against our LGBT neighbors.”
In the end, the bill carried, and 20 years from now, it will not matter whether the margin of victory was four votes or 70 votes. What matters is that the Marriage Equality Act is a third of the way to becoming law, ending one form of institutionalized discrimination that has gone on for much too long. Stay tuned later this week for some important action in the Senate.
I’ll leave you with a final statement from Assemblymember Harry Bronson from last night’s debate on why his colleague should vote yes on the legislation:
This state is better than that. This country is better than that.