Same-sex marriage advocates hope the occasion resonates on a national level
July 25, 2011
By Tina Susman
There were the usual wedding-day jitters, tears and hiccups. One groom's leg twitched nervously. Rings had to be squeezed onto fingers swollen to sausage-like proportions from the heat and humidity. A name or two got jumbled, and witnesses were corralled at the last minute to validate some of the ceremonies.
There were even a few objectors, but none loud enough to be heard by hundreds of gay and lesbian couples Sunday as they married in chapels and courtrooms, beneath chuppahs and shade trees, even alongside Niagara Falls as New York became the sixth state to recognize same-sex weddings.
From the satin gowns and tailored tuxedos to the jangled nerves and champagne toasts, those marrying and those officiating said the ceremonies showed that gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual love is no different from anyone else's. But nobody could deny that these vows signified more than just weddings. They were the beginning of what gay rights advocates hope is a renewed push for marriage equality now that New York has become the most populous state to legalize same-sex marriage.
"It was a privilege to be part of this achievement in civil rights," said New York City Clerk Michael McSweeney, who presided over the city's first same-sex wedding, between 76-year-old Phyllis Siegel and 85-year-old Connie Kopelov.
The white-haired couple arrived in blue button-down shirts and trousers, Kopelov in her wheelchair. To take her vows, she stood and leaned on a walker. Siegel stood beside her, her right hand covering Kopelov's left, which clutched the walker. After McSweeney declared them married, he and their witnesses erupted in loud applause. Siegel wiped away tears.
Minutes later, the couple exited the clerk's office onto the street, where Kopelov triumphantly displayed their certificate of marriage. Asked how long they had been together, Siegel replied, "Twenty-three years, and we're looking for 23 more."
Hundreds of other couples stood three deep in a line that stretched down a city block, waiting their turn inside the marble-floored lobby of the clerk's office in Manhattan. Altogether, the city issued 659 marriage licenses Sunday in all five boroughs, officials said.
Those waiting their turn in Manhattan included Dave Lewis, who grew up in Long Beach, and Adam McKew, originally from West Covina. They dressed in traditional kilts and Prince Charlie jackets, with ermine-fur bags on their hips, to pay tribute to their shared Scottish heritage.
Sunday was their seventh anniversary as a couple. "So we're very excited," Lewis said.
The men had hoped to be legally wed in New York two years ago, when the state Senate debated a same-sex marriage bill. It failed then but passed this June 24 by a slim margin, prompting opponents of same-sex marriage to vow to target lawmakers who approved it. Scattered protests Sunday drew hundreds or handfuls.
The Rev. Anthony Evans of the Washington, D.C.-based National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of black and Latino churches that opposes same-sex marriage, warned that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would face problems when he and his fellow Democratic legislators seek reelection. "You're going to need the black church," Evans said at a Manhattan protest. When Cuomo "went against God ... we have a moral right to go against him."
The protests did not disrupt any weddings, nor did they faze couples like Daniel Hernandez and Nevin Cohen, who exchanged rings in 2001 on a beach in California, Hernandez's home state. He had moved to New York to live with Cohen, and on Sunday, the pair wore yellow orchids in their matching navy sport coats as they tied the knot.
"Love just transcends hate," said Hernandez, his voice breaking, as a small group of protesters yelled from a distant corner.
Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, which called protests in Manhattan, Buffalo, Syracuse and the state capital, Albany, said the group wanted a referendum. "We want to let the people of New York decide the future of marriage," she said.
But there was no indication that New York would follow the path of California, where voters in November 2008 ended gay marriage after the state Supreme Court had legalized it. The passage of Proposition 8 halted six months of same-sex weddings but did not invalidate the 18,000 marriages that took place in California during that time. A federal judge has declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional; that decision is under appeal.
New York voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, and they elected Cuomo last year after he made same-sex marriage a centerpiece of his campaign. The state is home to about 65,000 same-sex couples, according to the Williams Institute of UCLA, which studies gender-based law and social policy. Its estimate is based on 2010 U.S. census figures.
For the couples in New York City, the celebration carried special significance in light of President Obama's decisions last week on two key gay rights issues.
On Tuesday, he endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would repeal the 15-year-old Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and denies federal benefits and protections to gay couples who wed in states that recognize their unions. And on Friday, Obama certified Congress' repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Despite all the celebrations Sunday, advocates of gay marriage said overturning the Defense of Marriage Act was crucial. As long as it remains in effect, even couples married in states that recognize same-sex marriage are denied things such as Social Security benefits when their spouses die. Other places recognizing same-sex weddings include Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.
"Right now, I'm just thinking about this moment. That will be the next step," Elizabeth Rosario said of the battle for federal recognition, after she married Tina Marie Torregrossa in Brooklyn. The couple's 16-year-old son, Roberto, carried the rings, which proved more difficult than anticipated to slip on.
"I just want you to know that this has happened to every couple so far -- swollen fingers," the pastor said good-naturedly, blaming the heat wave as the couple, clad in white shirts and white pants, forced their rings on.
Later, Rosario said the couple initially had planned to have a ceremony with family and friends, but that would have taken time to arrange.
"My gut just told me it was time," said Rosario, after she and Torregrossa posed for pictures beneath a rainbow-colored arch at the Brooklyn borough hall. "We decided we wanted to be part of history."