New York State Assembly Member, D-69th District (Manhattan).
co-host of Gay USA and veteran journalist and activist.
longtime LGBT activist and writer. He is former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice and blogs at KenyonFarrow.com. His book, Stand Up!: The Shifting Politics of Racial Uplift, will be published next year by South End Press.
Late Friday night, New York became the sixth and largest state to approve same-sex marriage. After complicated behind-the-scenes negotiations, four Republican senators joined all but one Democrat to pass the bill in a close vote in the State Senate. The State Assembly, with a Democratic majority, had approved it earlier in the month. Two days after the passage of the measure, tens of thousands of people took to the streets for New York City’s annual gay pride parade on Sunday. To discuss the issue, we speak with Democratic New York State Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, a marriage equality bill leader and the first openly gay man elected to the New York State Assembly. We are also joined by Ann Northrop, co-host of "Gay USA,” and by longtime LGBT activist and writer, Kenyon Farrow. Farrow has written about the conservative strategy behind the GOP’s support for marriage equality, which includes pulling gay donors away from the Democratic Party going into the 2012 presidential election. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Late Friday night, New York’s State Senate voted to legalize gay marriage. Shortly afterwards, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed off on the legislation, making New York the sixth and by far the largest state to approve same-sex marriage. New York is the third most populous U.S. state. It joins Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Washington capital district in allowing gay couples to marry.
On the eve of the decision, President Obama attended a gay Democratic Party fundraiser in New York where he said gay couples deserved equal rights but stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage.
Gay weddings are expected to commence in New York within 30 days. After complicated, behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Republican-controlled State Senate voted 33 to 29 for the bill. The State Assembly, with a Democratic majority, had approved it earlier. Four Republican senators joined all but one Democrat in supporting the measure.
This is Republican State Senator Stephen Saland.
SEN. STEPHEN SALAND: My intellectual and emotional journey has ended here today, and I have to define doing the right thing as treating all persons with equality, and that equality includes within the definition of marriage.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, two days after the passage of the bill, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of New York for the annual gay pride parade. Democracy Now! spoke to some of the people involved in the march about the historic legislation.
ROSLYN WILLIAMS: Well, my name is Roslyn Williams. I’m from the Jersey Shore. I came out today because this is my day. I’m enjoying my Pride Day. To me, this is like a revolution, because yesterday, or maybe two days ago, we got cleared to finally get married, and I just got engaged on the 16th. So I’m here with my baby, our first Pride together. Say your name, baby.
SHAWNEE: My name is Shawnee. I’m from Jersey Shore, as well. The reason why I’m here is a big celebration to me and my Pride family.
SEAN: My name is Sean. And we’re excited that gay marriage has finally passed New York. We live here in Manhattan. We’ve been together for about 10 years, and we adopted children starting four years ago. You know, marriage isn’t something that we felt we needed to hold our family together, but it’s certainly something that we feel that we deserve, happy to have. And, you know, we’ll take advantage of it as soon as we can.
DR. MILTON DELGADO: Hi, I’m Dr. Milton Delgado. I’m from Wilmington, Delaware, and I came here to celebrate the passing of gay marriage in New York City. I think it’s phenomenal that it’s being done, and I had to come and support my New York City brothers and sisters as they celebrate gay pride today.
SHELLEY: My name’s at Shelley. This is Stephanie. We’re here because this is our—actually, we’re a part of song club, the Straight and Gay Alliance in our school. And I brought a lot of the club members here, because this is an event where they can actually be themselves for once without having to worry about anybody around them. And this is complete love, like this is a place where all they’ll feel is love. This is going to make the kids love this event, as well.
NICHOLAS SWENSON: Hi, I’m Nicholas Swenson, and I’m here to celebrate pride. I am from Brainerd, Minnesota. I’m all the way in New York City to see one of the largest prides in the United States of America. New York just, of course, legalized gay marriage, which is fantastic. In Minnesota, we’re dealing with an—putting it to the vote to amend the Constitution to make it just between a man and a woman, and so it’s really important to be out here and celebrate and be part of the community and its support and moving forward in a movement. And yeah, it’s really about being who I am, being proud of who I am, being proud of my community, and making a statement for equality and diversity.
MATT: My name is Matt, and I’m here to support equal rights for everyone. And I’m very proud that New York has become the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex unions. And I’m also proud that we’re the first state where a Republican-controlled legislature has enacted same-sex marriage. So I’m very proud to be here today.
AMY GOODMAN: Those voices brought to you by Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor.
To discuss the issue of same-sex marriage, we’re joined here in the studio by Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly. He has been on the forefront of pressing for marriage equality in New York and was the first openly gay man elected to the New York State Assembly. He also happens to be the actress Rosie O’Donnell’s brother. We’re also joined by Ann Northrop, co-host of Gay USA and veteran journalist and activist.
Welcome, both, to Democracy Now! OK, Danny O’Donnell, you began it all in the House, in the State Assembly of New York, by introducing the legislation. Let’s take it step by step. When did you introduce that?
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: Well, the Assembly has passed the bill five times, starting in 2007. In 2007, when I was part of the team that drafted the bill—Governor Spitzer sent it to us—we only had 24 supporters for marriage equality, and in June of 2007, we had 85 yes votes. And so, that really began—most things in Albany go much slower than that. And so, we began that in 2007. We did it again in 2009 twice. And then, this year, in 2011, we passed the bill just last week. And I had been involved in the process of gathering sponsors, so that by the time that we got this program bill from Governor Cuomo, we had 68 members of the Assembly sponsoring the bill. And you need 76 votes to pass it, so when you start with 68 people who are on public record as in support, you’re in a pretty good place.
AMY GOODMAN: Going from the Assembly to the Senate is quite a journey. Talk about what happened in the Senate, though you’re not there. It was a grueling debate that was taking place there. It’s a Republican-controlled Senate that passed this legislation.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: Absolutely. And what we had was a very difficult and devastating defeat in the Senate in 2009. And this year, there was a concerted effort to to work together. All the leading gay and marriage groups in the state for the first time were working in conjunction with one another, rather than independently. And we knew that we needed to get pretty much almost all of the Democratic votes in the Senate to be yes votes, if we were going to convince any Republican senators to go along. And the Governor, Governor Cuomo, was working diligently to make that happen, at a press conference, rolled out three of the previous no votes. And that began to get us right to the edge of where we needed to be. And, you know, with the polling and—which was on our side, and the behind-the-scenes work to lobby individual senators, we were able to get over the top.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a little from the New York Times on Sunday, "Behind [N.Y.] Gay Marriage an Unlikely Mix of Forces." And it talks about—it’s by Michael Barbaro. "In the 35th-floor conference room of a Manhattan high-rise, two of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s most trusted advisers held a secret meeting a few weeks ago with a group of super-rich Republican donors."
It goes on to say, "Would the donors win over the deciding Senate Republicans? It sounded improbable: top Republican moneymen helping a Democratic rival with one of his biggest legislative goals.
“But the donors in the room—the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Daniel Loeb—had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure. And they were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views.
"Within days, the wealthy Republicans sent back word: They were on board. Each of them cut six-figure checks to the lobbying campaign that eventually totaled more than $1 million."
ANN NORTHROP: Well, that article is a little naive, because these people have been behind marriage equality for a while now. Paul Singer’s son being gay is a big deal and should be bolded more in that story. You may remember Proposition 8 in California, which was a referendum passed by the voters a couple of years ago to take away the marriage rights that the California Supreme Court had given to same-sex couples. And an independent group sprang up, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, put together by the actor Rob Reiner and Chad Griffin, an out gay publicist in L.A., to fight in court against Prop 8. And they got Republicans behind that, big Republican donors. And Paul Singer has been a leader in that fight against Prop 8 and funding that court case, and so it was very natural to turn to him in New York for funding on marriage rights. And a lot of these guys on Wall Street have gay sons, gay relatives, and they are behind this fight. And it just, in some ways, portrays how conservative a movement this is, that it is a bipartisan movement for a very conservative approach to life of supporting marriage.
AMY GOODMAN: And when we come back, we’ll talk about the role of the Catholic Church, or maybe the lack of role. I think Governor Cuomo’s approach, though he never thought he’d win them over, was to neutralize them. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the historic vote that has taken place in the New York state legislature on Friday—it was the New York State Senate—signed off on soon after, right around midnight, by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who does happen to be Catholic. We’re joined by Ann Northrop, co-host of Gay USA, journalist and activist; Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, who’s a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly, on the forefront of the issue of marriage equality, and was the first openly gay man elected to the New York State Assembly. We’re also joined by Kenyon Farrow, who is a longtime LGBT activist and writer, former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice. He blogs at KenyonFarrow.com. His book, Stand Up!: The Shifting Politics of Racial Uplift, will be published next year by South End Press.
The role of the Catholic Church? Daniel O’Donnell, let’s start with you.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: Well, I was raised Catholic. I’m familiar with what the sacraments are, and the sacrament is holy matrimony. The sacrament isn’t marriage. They are very different things. There are many different reasons why one is ineligible to get the sacrament of holy matrimony. Unless, of course, you’re the mayor, former mayor of the City of New York, and you get to have it three times, most people only get holy matrimony once. So, the Church’s position, the Catholic Church’s position, has been opposed, and they led a fight to stop this. And they were very successful previously, and the Governor was brilliant in how he handled this issue and how he handled dealing with their opposition. Obviously, if you don’t want to marry somebody of the same gender, then don’t.
The Catholic Church’s position and other churches’ position, that it’s against their teaching, flies the face of our constitutional history. Thomas Jefferson wrote that our civil rights have no dependence on religious opinion. And during this year’s debate on the floor of the Assembly, which I must say was more civil than the previous two times that we’ve had this debate, you know, one of the members kept on waving his Torah at me—the Torah says this, the Torah says that. And I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my family, we didn’t read the Torah. And the thing about religion is religion is individual, and religion is across the board. People’s faith can’t be interfered with by government. And so, government has no role in making these decisions. That’s the position I took. That’s the position that Governor Cuomo took.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go on in the Times in the section called "Outgunned Opponents": "It was befuddling to gay-rights advocates: The Catholic Church, arguably the only institution with the authority and reach to derail same-sex marriage, seemed to shrink from the fight.
"As the marriage bill hurtled toward a vote, the head of the church in New York, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, left town to lead a meeting of bishops in Seattle. He did not travel to Albany or deliver a major speech in the final days of the session. And when he did issue a strongly worded critique of the legislation—he called it 'immoral' and an 'ominous threat'—it was over the phone to an Albany-area radio show." Ann?
ANN NORTHROP: Well, I don’t know how to read the real balance on that, but I think the Catholic Church was quite active against this and was threatening members of the legislature to excommunicate them, and that was a problem. It’s profoundly depressing to me that we have to deal with these issues along the way when we’re talking about civic marriage, but I do think that the Governor and the legislature did a smart thing, which was, instead of standing up saying, "Don’t be ridiculous. This is not a religious question," they said, "OK, OK, we’ll deal with your concerns. We will put into the bill explicitly the religious exemptions that you don’t have to marry someone in your church or synagogue, or whatever, if you don’t want to." But the fact is that was always the law, and all it was was a restatement of existing human rights law in a way that gave conservative or religious legislators cover.
AMY GOODMAN: Kenyon Farrow, you are not as thrilled about what took place on Friday night. What are your concerns about gay marriage?
KENYON FARROW: Well, I think that my concerns about gay marriage, and particularly the way that it played out in New York state, I agree with what Ann said earlier that the fact that this took place in a Republican-controlled Senate speaks to just how conservative of a movement the kind of LGBT, same-sex marriage movement is, but I think that there’s something actually a little more dangerous that is happening. I think that we could potentially see New York state be the testing ground for other ways in which the Republicans might actually be able to roll out a triangulation strategy around marriage equality, and it would sort of go against what most people would normally think about the Republican Party, but I think that they’re making a few different calculations.
One, as the New York Times article pointed out and Ann pointed out, that there are, one, gay people within the Republican Party—Ken Mehlman is one who’s been doing a lot of fundraising. There’s been this recent scandal with GLAAD, of a board member, Troup Coronado, who also was an employee of AT&T and also had previously worked, it’s now been reported, for the Heritage Foundation, right? And he is a gay man. Given the fact that there’s been all of this kind of funding, one of the things that I see that the Republicans may do is to actually kind of create a wedge in the Democratic coalition around LGBT issues by drawing some of the gay donors, who the Democrats are relying very heavily on in this next election, according to a story by Politico, so they’re able to draw those donors into the Republican Party, and also understanding the Republican base is not where it once was on this issue, specifically younger Republicans who mostly, when polled, agree with most of the sort mainstream LGBT agenda. I think the Republicans could potentially use this actually as a strategy to kind of triangulate and become the party that actually wins marriage equality for LGBT people in the U.S. And I think that that is a dangerous place for the LGBT community to be situated, you know, in cahoots with the Republicans.
AMY GOODMAN: Ann Northrop, your response?
ANN NORTHROP: I take Kenyon’s point and agree with it. There have always been—there’s always been a segment of the gay population that has voted Republican and been conservative. A third of the gay vote went for Giuliani in his second mayoral run, I think. But I think the Republican presidential candidates—Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney—are doing an excellent job of alienating gay voters, so I think we’ve got some wiggle room still.
AMY GOODMAN: Minnesota Republican, who will be announcing for president today, Michele Bachmann, announcing for her candidacy later today from her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, on Face the Nation yesterday talked about some of her policy proposals and commented on the passage of same-sex marriage legislation in New York.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: I stand for the proposition that marriage is between a man and a woman. I think that Minnesota, for instance, this year, just about a month ago or so, passed at the legislative level the constitutional amendment to allow the people to decide what the definition of marriage will be. So that ballot question will be on the ballot in 2012. The people of New York came to a different conclusion. I think what we know is that, ultimately, you have all the various laws in the various states. There will be a conflict. If someone from Pennsylvania—or from New York, for instance, moves to a state where marriage is between a man and a woman, will these marriages be recognized? Ultimately, it will go to the courts. As president of the United States, I will only nominate judges who are not activist judges, who are not legislating from the bench. And so, I think that’s why it’s going to be very important to have this debate.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Would that be a litmus test for you, someone who was for same-sex marriage?
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: I want people who are for the Constitution. That’s my litmus test.
AMY GOODMAN: Michele Bachmann.
ANN NORTHROP: Of course, my reading of the Constitution is that it promises equal rights for all. So, again, this is so insulting and so depressing to hear people talk like this. But it does remind us that our real goal is overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that prevents people from gaining all the federal rights of marriage. And while we celebrate marriage rights in New York, it is a half glass full at best.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there concern about a constitutional amendment being pushed forward in the country, State Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: I don’t have concerns for that, state by state. We don’t have referendums here in New York. In order to amend our constitution, to change this would require votes of the state legislature in two consecutive terms. I can assure you the State Assembly under Sheldon Silver will never, ever, ever do such a thing.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the rest of the country, Ann Northrop?
ANN NORTHROP: Well, 29 states have constitutional amendments to forbid same-sex marriage. Another 12 have state laws against it. We have a long way to go. I think all of these laws and amendments are unconstitutional. I think DOMA will be overturned in the courts before it is repealed in the U.S. Congress. I think we will strike all of this down eventually, but it’s a hard slog.
AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly is the schedule now? When can people get married, same-sex marriage in New York, State Assembly Member O’Donnell?
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: They can begin getting married on July 24th, my fiancé’s birthday. And so, that’s the first day that these licenses—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s 30 days from the time of signing?
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: From the—July 24th is when it will begin.
AMY GOODMAN: And are you planning to get married that day?
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: We were not—well, we haven’t—I haven’t had time to figure that all out. And clearly, we’re going to get married. Whether or not—we won’t be getting married on July 24th, no. Sometime thereafter, yes.
ANN NORTHROP: Ask him how long they’ve been together?
AMY GOODMAN: How long?
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: Thirty-one years. It’s a long engagement.
ANN NORTHROP: But interestingly, the state announced that you can start applying for marriage licenses online July 5th. So they’re preparing for an onslaught of applications.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you first meet?
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: We met the first day of college at Catholic University of America. I was a political science student. He was an acting student, stunningly gorgeous. And we became friends right away, and we’ve been in each other’s lives ever since.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of this being a Republican-led State Senate that signed off on this, Ann Northrop? What does this also mean for other states around the country?
ANN NORTHROP: Well, it is the first Republican-controlled part of any legislature to pass same-sex marriage, and it’s interesting that when it lost two years ago the State Senate was in the hands of the Democrats. But New York is such a wacky place, it has been called officially the worst legislature in the country, and I don’t think any of us have any argument with that, including—
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: Thanks, Ann. That’s what I need today. OK, go ahead.
ANN NORTHROP: Don’t you think that’s true?
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: I can’t comment. I work really hard, Ann. Thanks.
ANN NORTHROP: Well, let me ask you a question. Do we have Dean Skelos to thank for this? Because he, as the Republican leader of the State Senate, allowed the bill to come to the floor for a vote and allowed his members an open vote on it, rather than bringing down the hammer and saying everybody has to vote the same way.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER DANIEL O’DONNELL: Well, this is the way I’ll answer that. I think what has happened, there’s been a sea change in public opinion. The polls are on our side. I think that a calculation was made that it was better to get the issue away than to leave it pending for another year. And so, in the end, I don’t think this empowers the Republican Party in any way. It empowers individual elected officials who have the courage and the strength to do what’s right. And so, those four Republicans who voted yes should be lauded, because it would be easier for them to just say, "We’re not going to do that." I have known for at least a month that the votes were in the Senate to pass it, if it was allowed onto the floor. And in the end, I believe that the calculation was made by the Republican leader, Dean Skelos, that it would be better to take this vote, let it pass, than wait and have another year of what we had for the last month, which was the State Capitol was turned into a circus of crazy people.
AMY GOODMAN: New York Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, I want to thank you for being with us, Ann Northrop, a co-host of Gay USA, and also Kenyon Farrow, a longtime LGBT activist and writer, former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, blogging at KenyonFarrow.com. His book, Stand Up!: The Shifting Politics of Racial Uplift, will be published next year.