New York Gay Marriage Law Presents New Challenges To Local LGBT Advocates

LGBT Rights Groups See Blurry Future After New York Victory

For New York's same-sex couples, the legalization of marriage marks a huge victory. For some local advocates of the historic legislation, though, the triumph is bittersweet.

"When the organization was founded, our main goal was marriage equality in New York state, so [in] that way we can all go home," said Ron Zacchi, former executive director of Marriage Equality New York, an advocacy organization. After the legislation was passed in June, Zacchi stepped down to pursue a master's degree in public administration.

Zacchi, who had helmed the organization for almost four years, said that it was only when Connecticut legalized gay marriage in 2008 that some members began to consider the future of their group beyond statewide marriage equality. Love Makes A Family, a similar, Connecticut-based advocacy group, closed its doors after marriage equality was achieved there.

But Zacchi said MENY "can't take that approach."

Brian Silva, who recently stepped up as MENY's executive director, worried that the New York law's passing may make it harder for the organization to gain support and resources.

"I think these things always run in cycles," he said. "Leading up to the vote, there was a tremendous amount of new resources, new people, but there will be a tapering off of people [now that it's passed]."

Lorrie Millman, a New York City resident, donated twice to MENY's Political Action Committee. She said that now she didn't see a need to continue her financial support.

"I'm not planning on making contributions in the future," she said. "My feeling is that it's a probably a moot issue at this point."

Even for LGBT groups that don't just focus on marriage equality, the legislation presents new challenges for gaining and maintaining support. Ross Levi, the Executive Director of Empire State Pride Agenda, admitted that it's tough to get citizens and lawmakers to pay attention to other LGBT issues.

"Marriage, for one reason or another, is an issue that sucks all the oxygen out of the room," he said. "It's something that everyone has experience with in life and as a result it's an issue that people have strong feelings about and a sense of familiarity with. That's not necessarily the case with other issues."

Levi expects that a decline in support and public interest will follow the New York victory.

"We've had this issue in the past," he said. In 2003, when New York passed the Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act -- a key project for the group at the time -- many people, including supporters, expected the group to "close up shop."

Zacchi expressed the same worry for MENY.

"It's going to take another wave of education in New York State on why we still have more to go," he said.

Levi agreed that it will take a major awareness campaign to refocus public interest, and there are plenty of other issues affecting LGBT New Yorkers that need attention.

"Just because we have marriage doesn't mean there's not going to be LGBT homeless youth and seniors that need effective services," he said.

Holly Delany Cole, who runs Community Resource Exchange, a group that helps manage non-profits, says that single-issue groups may face serious challenges of purpose once they reach their goal.

"If your mission has been fulfilled, you need to think about how your talents can be applied to other related issues," she said

Silva says MENY is working on refocusing its efforts.

"A lot of us definitely looked at it as a two-part of effort," he said. "We always knew that the second step was that the Defense Of Marriage Act is going to be repealed."

Although same sex couples can enjoy state-wide marital benefits, DOMA prevents them from receiving federal benefits. Passed in 1996, the legislation defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"I am convinced that it is a surmountable obstacle," said Silva.

Plus, according to Levi, there's still plenty of work to be done in-state.

"We can't just pop the champagne on marriage without planning on defending it," he said, pointing to the legalization and subsequent banning of same-sex marriage in California. "Every one of these legislators in New York who voted for marriage will be up for election. We need to make sure we can defend them."

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