Gay Rights on Joralemon St.

Riding an elevator to the second floor of the Brooklyn Appellate Courthouse on Joralemon Street, I overheard a middle aged, heavy set woman in a daisy print dress and white Reeboks talking to her friend.

“Panel discussion?” she snorted. “What is there to discuss? They are the way they are, they should just have fun with it.” Her acquaintance just sheepishly shrugged and smiled, so as if to head off an argument she herself had little stake in. As they got off the elevator I was taking to that same panel discussion on gay marriage and the role of courts, the be-daisiyed woman had scoffed at, I couldn’t help but think her mood reflected that of most of the country.

Consider a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week stating that 59% of Americans opposed gay marriage while at the same time 53% opposed President Bush’s Federal Marriage Amendment. Such paradoxical evidence indicates that Americans are not so much pro-gay rights as they are anti-homophobic.  Recoiling in horror at images of Reverend Fred Phelps, with his minions from the Westboro Baptist Church and, picketing the Mathew Shepard funeral and declaring a murder victim hell-bound (curiously, Ronald Reagan is getting the same treatment) is not the same as extending full and equal protection under the law. Enter the courts, stage right.

The event was kicked off by Marc Levine, President of the Gay/Straight Alliance of the NYS Courts. Levine discussed the impact of gender specific marriage laws on same-sex households, and the fact that hetero-families hardly have a lock on childrearing. According to the 2000 US Census, one-third of lesbian households and one-fifth of gay male households have children. Considering that families are integral to the acculturation of children, marriage, as a means of legitimizing offspring and making available social and civil protections, is indispensable to their proper nurturing. As with many arguments made for marriage rights, it was slightly surreal to hear someone having to make this common-sense argument.

First to speak was Nyack Mayor John Shields, who with his partner and nine other same-sex couples, known as the “Nyack 10”, requested marriage licenses from the Orangetown Clerk. When denied, they retained attorneys Steve Hyman and Norman Siegal, the latter appearing on the panel with Mayor Shields. Shields described his lawsuit as part “a personal struggle” and related the indignities he had suffered, the most egregious being his General Discharge from the Army after disclosing his homosexuality, culminating in a psychological evaluation in order to obtain his teaching license.

While joking that the Hon. Michael Bloomberg has, thus far, failed to return his calls, he outlined the strategy of his lawsuit, which held that citizen are harmed by the denial of marriage licenses which makes them citizens ineligible for the notorious 1,049 federal benefits and responsibilities. He also wisely dismissed NYC’s domestic partnership laws as a clear example of “separate but equal”, drawing direct comparisons to earlier civil rights cases such as Brown, an analogy that panelist, Susan Sommer tore into. Sommer, a member of Lambda Legal, the largest and oldest legal organization dealing the rights of gays and HIV/AIDS sufferers, and herself among the legal team that argued Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down that state’s prohibitions against gay intercourse, bristled at the President’s excoriation of “activist judges.” Apparently unaware it is not a self-evidently true argument, she claimed that when legislatures are either unable or unwilling to provide citizens with necessary protections it is the place of the judiciary to bestow implicit rights, the rulings of the Warren court being the most obvious example, and the Lawrence decision the most recent.

Saving the evening from descending into a self-congratulation hootenanny, though, was Aubrey Lees. The former President of the Lesbian and Gay Law Association of Greater New York (LeGal), she called New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to task for obstructing the solemnization of same-sex unions and airily wondered what substantial good Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was present, had done the LGBT community. Though inding it quite charming that Markowitz had seen fit to fly the gay pride flag over Brooklyn Borough Hall, she expressed weariness with politicians who pay lip service instead of political capital toward equality.

“I’m just wondering,” she said with a smile as some on the panel rustled uncomfortably.

As the floor was opened to questions, the issue of effective legal strategy was raised. Siegal steered clear of discussing an attempt to go to the highest court, instead favoring efforts to enshrine gay marriage on a local level. Also, he wisely counseled a respect for popular opinion, particularly religious sensibilities, for fear of what a court decision would be whittled down to in the wild.  I couldn’t stifle a degree of bemusement as the bugbear of “states rights” stalked the room without ever being explicitly mentioned. The battle cry of segregationists was being used, finally, for good instead of evil.

Appearing nearly an hour and a half late was New Paltz Mayor Jason West, fresh from having his indictment for performing same-sex marriages dismissed as unconstitutional. Had he been convicted he faced one year in jail plus $1,000 in fines; having had twenty-four counts against him, was visibly relieved. While no cheerleader for the Green Party myself, I found it refreshing to find such a degree of character and self sacrifice in a public official. Are you listening Peggy Noonan?

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