N.Y. Marriage Equality Activists Set Sights on Repealing DOMA
In the wake of the recent marriage equality victory, countless LGBT New Yorkers can finally secure legal recognition for their relationships. Experts warn, however, that this is no time to rest on our laurels. With these newly-won rights already under attack, the federal Defense of Marriage Act still in place and many other states lacking marriage for gays and lesbians, the fight for full recognition is far from over.
In fact, it has just begun.
"Over the summer the Assembly and Senate passed and [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York State, with all the rights and benefits of that," noted Brian Silva, interim executive director of Marriage Equality New York. "It does not change the fact that New Yorkers and Americans at large do not enjoy these benefits at the federal level because DOMA is still in effect."
New Yorkers United for Marriage-a coalition of groups including MENY, the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans and Freedom to Marry-led the effort for marriage equality in the Empire State. And countless organizations and individuals contributed their time and money to support the work done by this coalition.
This work is not over.
The grassroots efforts that won marriage equality for New York are being employed in other states, to great effect.
"First of all, we have 44 more states that discriminate against committed couples," said Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry. "New York now gives us tremendous momentum and perfect proof that when marriage discrimination ends, families are helped."
In his opinion, New York’s marriage equality win is solid, and recent attacks against the legislation by the National Organization for Marriage and other groups are nothing more than a phony appeal to raise funds by undermining the victory. What is important, said Wolfson, is to focus energy on places where marriage is truly under attack.
"We have to take the momentum and win more states, and grow the national public majority by creating a climate of empowerment," he continued. "Even those of us who are married in New York still face federal discrimination against our marriages, and are denied important protections and responsibilities like social security, health coverage, immigration, and a thousand others."
Both MENY and Freedom to Marry have structured plans for how to secure these rights.
Wolfson has a three-track "roadmap to victory" plotted out: win more states, grow the majority in public opinion, and end federal discrimination. Silva’s plan is similar, albeit with a more grassroots approach.
"Just this Saturday [,Sept. 24,] we brought a group to New Jersey to walk in support of the Garden State Equality Walk," he said. "It was a huge success for them, and it was great that we were able to support what they’re doing."
Silva said that MENY was looking forward to more events like this, including providing support for organizations in North Carolina, Maine, Minnesota, and New Jersey-states that are fighting to keep the laws they currently have on the books or to defeat measures that seeks to enshrine discrimination into their state constitutions.
MENY’s four-point plan is to work to repeal DOMA; to fight to ensure that the New York’s marriage equality law is upheld and implemented correctly; to continue their work educating communities about marriage equality; and to use their MENY-PAC to elect politicians committed to these goals.
By merging grassroots groups with large national organizations, Silva hopes to achieve the common goal of federal recognition of marriage for same-sex couples.
"Even if everyone is doing something different, everyone does a different piece of the puzzle," he said. "One thing we did well in New York is that everyone put the concerns of competition aside and became one team with one mission. I think in states where organizations can do that, they will have the most chance of success."
Wolfson said that his work with MENY, the Pride Agenda and HRC has helped build a solid foundation of public opinion, organizing and prep work to get them ready for this year’s marriage equality push.
"Our colleague organizations came together in a really strong, robust coalition around a joint strategy with joint fundraising to pull together a sophisticated, no-stone-unturned campaign," said Wolfson, noting these efforts included polling, lobbying on both the Democratic and Republican sides, television ads, phone banks and asking New Yorkers to contact their legislators.
For MENY, an all-volunteer organization, the time spent in the field walking through neighborhoods and getting signatures and planning rallies and other events proves just as valuable as tapping into national organizations’ deep pockets. Strong leadership at the top also helps, according to Silva who gave credit to Cuomo. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has also taken an increasingly active role in securing marriage equality in his state.
"Those types of relationships and support are absolutely necessary," said Silva. "But one of the things we sometimes forget is once someone has said yes, they will support the bill, that is only the first step. We have to let them know they have an obligation to talk to their colleagues who are on the fence, to help us educate them and bring them on board. The New York State legislature really stepped to the plate on that."
Wolfson also spoke to Cuomo’s efforts, as well as state Assemblymembers Daniel O’Donnell and Deborah Glick.
"We worked closely with Cuomo and his team, and they played an important part," he said. "We have been working in the legislature for many years, with people like O’Donnell and Glick talking to their colleagues inside even as we were making the case outside. People like O’Donnell in particular were tireless in having personal conversations about his relationship to his colleagues."
Freedom to Marry will apply similar methods to their goal of repealing DOMA. As Wolfson noted, the federal government continues to discriminate against those who are currently celebrating the victory in New York.
"July 24, 2011, will be viewed as one of the defining civil rights moments in New York State history. Seeing so many diverse, loving, same-sex couples celebrating their commitment in legally recognized marriage, made the years of hard work absolutely worth it," said state Sen. Tom Duane, who introduced the marriage equality bill in the Senate. "There is still much more to do. In order to achieve full marriage equality, I will work with my colleagues at the federal level to overturn the dreadful Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Our rights must not be allowed to end at the state border."