<i>Out and About: LGBT Legal</i> -- A Message to 38 NY State Senators: Shame On You

What do I tell my daughter about these injustices, and now the actions of the 38 New York State Senators who had no compunction relegating me and my family to something less than other families?
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I am angry.

There, I said it.

On December 2, 2009, 38 Senators voted to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying in the state of New York. 24 Senators got it, and sought to bring this important civil right to our state by voting "yes" to marriage equality in New York. Sadly however, the vote was not even close, and while some will argue that it was progress to get the bill debated and voted upon in the Senate, I ask, "What do I tell my daughter?"

Five years ago, my partner and I had a "commitment ceremony" in an Episcopal Church in Westchester. We have been in a loving, committed relationship for well over a decade. Our daughter, who was then seven years old, had always wanted to be the flower girl at our "wedding." When we announced to her that we were getting "married", she shouted with delight that "at last, we will be a real family." From the mouths of babes.

Now, five years later, my partner and I still face the same legal obstacles that we faced when we stood together in a house of worship, and proclaimed our love and lives to each other in the presence of our family, friends and neighbors. We are no more protected, nor recognized in the eyes of the law as a married couple. Yet, we are productive, contributing members of our communities, faithful taxpayers, devoted parents and partners, and role models. We share the joys and responsibilities of marriage, notwithstanding that our union has no name or legal import in this state.

Some suggest that we go to another state or country where it is legal for same-sex couples to be married. Even if we were willing to do that and forego being married in our home state, what happens when we return to New York?

This summer, I was asked to write an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief in connection with two cases that were pending before the New York State Court of Appeals addressing the broader issue of recognition of legally valid same-sex marriages performed outside of New York. My colleagues and I argued that there are no laws barring New York from recognizing these foreign marriages, and that supporting marriage recognition would not violate the state's public policy.

The four-judge majority issued a narrow holding, ruling that the government defendants had the discretion to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of the employees of Westchester County and New York State who had been married outside of New York, but the majority declined to apply the broader, long-standing marriage recognition rule that was adopted by the three-judge minority, which would have established a uniform policy in New York to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside the state.

The point is, even were my partner and I to lawfully marry outside of New York, there is no guarantee that our marriage would be recognized here. And as long as the Defense of Marriage Act remains on the books, the federal government will also not recognize such a marriage. The New York Court of Appeals, in its recent decision, expressed the "hope that the Legislature will address the controversy", referring to both marriage recognition and marriage equality. Well, the New York Senate did indeed finally address marriage equality last week, but the outcome was contrary to what so many of us hoped it would be.

The Human Rights Campaign recently released a joint statement by many of the leading LGBT organizations in the country proclaiming outrage at the delays by the House of Representatives in passing ENDA, the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which will protect LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace. As we approach 2010, it remains legal in 29 states to fire gay people based on their sexual orientation. This too makes me angry.

Matthew Shepard was a 21-year old college student who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998. There was no doubt that this was a hate crime committed because of Shepard's sexual orientation as a gay man. His killing, and the trial of his murderers, highlighted the need for federal hate crimes legislation that would punish individuals for committing crimes of violence against others based on sexual orientation. Federal hate crimes legislation was, in fact, introduced by President Clinton in 1999, and rejected by the House of Representatives. The legislation was reintroduced several times in Congress, but was not passed until 2009 when President Obama finally signed it into law.

How can it be that a country so rich in diversity, that has touted the metaphor of a melting pot for well over 100 years to symbolize the melding of its citizens' many cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs as a symbol of its strength, allow such discrimination against LGBT Americans to continue? Why did it take 11 years after the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard for the country to implement a federal hate crimes bill, when during that time there were over 12,000 crimes committed against citizens based on their sexual orientation? Why do our elected officials seek to deprive our LGBT citizens the protection of the most basic of civil rights?

What do I tell my daughter about these injustices and now, the actions of the 38 New York State Senators who had no compunction relegating me and my family to something less than other families? I suppose I tell her that any civil rights movement is a process, and that we are not finished advocating for equality and inclusion for LGBT citizens. More importantly, I suppose I tell my daughter that we are and always will be, a real family, regardless of the recent events in our home state, because at the end of the day, our family is defined by our love for, and commitment to each other.

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