Allen Roskoff caught U.S. Senator Charles Schumer last month at the intersection of power politics and gay iconography: a Chelsea showing of Lord of the Rings.
Mr. Roskoff, a scruffy, intense gay-rights activist, met the Senator on the popcorn line. “How come I don’t hear your voice in favor of same-sex marriage?” he asked.
“You’re the only one asking me to do that,” Mr. Schumer told him.
That may have been true once-back in 1971, say, when Mr. Roskoff and other gay activists occupied the City Clerk’s office to demand marriage licenses. But gay marriage isn’t just a gadfly’s preoccupation anymore. Since a Massachusetts court mandated same-sex marriage in the Bay State last June, the ground has shifted violently under the feet of New York’s Senators and other liberal Democrats around the country.
These politicians have supported civil unions, voted to end workplace discrimination against gays, earned 100 percent ratings from the main gay lobby group, Human Rights Campaign-and suddenly it’s not enough. Nor are their promises to vote against a Federal Marriage Amendment. In the brave new politics of gay rights, “full equality”-meaning marriage-is the bottom line.
“Last year, the whole community was gaga over what a wonderful guy Howard Dean was because he signed the civil-unions bill,” recalled West Side Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who supports same-sex marriage. “But that was nine months ago. Now that’s not enough. What was a radical notion a year ago is now the default position.”
So Mr. Schumer and Senator Hillary Clinton-who have said they oppose same-sex marriage-are facing a mounting revolt from their gay constituents. There’s a move afoot to boot the Senators from this year’s “Heritage of Pride” parade down Fifth Avenue, a parade organizer confirmed. “There’s widespread disgust with them at the grassroots level,” said a leading gay Democrat. Even the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s traditionally cautious gay lobbying group, is willing to publicly criticize the state’s top Democrats.
“I’m disappointed that [the Senators] don’t understand why marriage is so important to us,” said the group’s executive director, Alan Van Capelle. “Civil unions are separate but equal, and history tells us that ‘separate but equal’ is rarely equal.”
He added: “That said, I’m happy to report we have two Senators who are firmly against the constitutional amendment, and who have been relatively good advocates for our community.”
This is just the quiet before the storm for an issue that’s ready to explode into New York politics. Some observers expect it to be a nightmare for Democrats looking to stake out moderate turf, and Republicans are licking their chops. The signs are there: the mayor of New Paltz marrying same-sex couples, a gay Assembly member suing for the right to marry, weddings on the steps of City Hall as a nonplused Mayor Bloomberg wanders past. In Albany, one pending bill in the State Legislature would legalize same-sex marriage; another would take marriage out of the government’s hands altogether. And a State Senator from Queens, Serphin Maltese, has introduced a state version of the federal Defense of Marriage Act intended to block gay marriages.
But Mr. Maltese’s bill, like the others, has languished. So beginning next month, same-sex marriage is likely to be a reality in New York. That’s when neighboring Massachusetts starts issuing licenses and New York newlyweds return to see whether the state honors their unions.
“It’s going to pop when folks come back from Massachusetts-married,” said Brad Hoylman, the president of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, a political club.
Mr. Schumer isn’t just hearing about marriage from movie-line hecklers like Mr. Roskoff, who pronounced the Senator’s protestations that he opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment “ridiculous.” Last fall, at a discreet fund-raiser at Gramercy Tavern, major gay campaign donors to Mr. Schumer pressed the Senator to support same-sex marriage. People who were there said that Mr. Schumer responded by saying that he was “evolving” on the issue. Gay supporters have been leaning for weeks on New York’s two Senators at least to put out a statement of their positions on a variety of gay-rights issues. And after taking calls from The Observer about their positions on gay rights, the Senators rushed out a joint letter stating their support for civil unions and anti-discrimination laws, and their opposition to a state ban on gay marriage and the Federal Marriage Amendment. Everything, in fact, but support for using the word “marriage.”
But while those positions were considered strongly pro-gay stances a year ago, they’re not anymore.
“There has been an incredible shift within the community on this issue,” said the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Matt Foreman. “Our elected officials, who have always been behind on marriage, are even further behind.”
To make matters a bit more difficult for Mr. Schumer and Ms. Clinton, that doesn’t apply to all elected officials. Last year, the state Democratic Party adopted a platform plank to support same-sex marriage. Only two other Democrats hold statewide office: Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Both support same-sex marriage.
“Spitzer and Hevesi have really raised the bar on same-sex marriage,” said Mr. Hoylman.
For Mr. Schumer, it’s shades of 1996. That’s when the then-Congressman voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. (Ms. Clinton, who wasn’t in Congress at the time, later said she supported it. Her husband signed the bill.) The act’s best-known provision protects a state from having to recognize same-sex marriage regulations from another state, but its second provision preemptively cut gays out of federal marriage benefits, like tax breaks and Social Security survivor payments. That same year, Senator John Kerry was one of just 14 Senators to vote against the bill, a move that has helped pacify gay groups unhappy with his tortured stand on gay marriage today.
Mr. Schumer’s vote, however, was greeted with outrage from gay activists, who promptly picketed his Prospect Park West apartment building in Brooklyn, “screaming right in his face,” as one protester, Andy Humm, recalled. One of Mr. Schumer’s opponents in the 1998 Democratic Senate primary, Mark Green, tried to use the vote against him, but it didn’t stick.
After his Defense of Marriage vote, Mr. Schumer backtracked frantically. In an unusual letter to the Empire Pride Agenda in 1998, Mr. Schumer described the bill he’d just voted for as “a gratuitous attack upon decent people for purely political gain.” Then he pledged never to “support a Senate leadership which thought scheduling a DOMA vote was a good idea.” But he didn’t say he’d changed his mind on voting for the legislation itself. In a statement to another gay group, he said he supported federal recognition of state same-sex marriage laws-something he’d just voted against.
Buttonholed by The Observer after a recent television appearance, Mr. Schumer didn’t seem eager to discuss the details of his stance on gay issues. “I’ve always been a very strong supporter of gay rights,” he said, striding down a long hall. Has he reconsidered the section of DOMA that denies gay couples federal benefits? “The bottom line is, I’ve always been for civil unions, period,” he said, fumbling with an exit door and finally escaping.
Mr. Schumer’s spokesman, Stu Loeser, later said that Mr. Schumer never supported the section of the 1996 bill that bars federal benefits for gay couples, and cited his “strong record of support” for gay and lesbian rights. Ms. Clinton’s spokeswoman, Nina Blackwell, said, “Senator Clinton believes people in committed relationships should have all of the rights and recognition they seek through civil unions and domestic partnerships.”
So far, the two Senators’ stance seems to match up pretty well with public opinion.
Eye on Polls
While the Senators may not be in line with some of their gay and lesbian constituents, they are following local polls, which show a majority of New Yorkers in favor of civil unions. Support for marriage seems to depend on how you ask the question: A Quinnipiac University poll released in April found 55 percent of state residents opposed, while a Pride Agenda poll found a slim plurality of 47 percent in favor of marriage rights.
The electoral test may come in 2006, when Mr. Schumer could face off against Mr. Spitzer-a supporter of full marriage rights-in a gubernatorial primary. Some strategists dismiss it as a non-issue, more likely to help Mr. Schumer in a general election than to hurt him in a primary. But some openly gay officials already say they’d side with Mr. Spitzer in a face-off because of his stance on marriage.
“It’s an issue of equality,” said Phil Reed, a City Council member from East Harlem. “Most of us really like Chuck, but Eliot Spitzer has stepped up and said he is going to respect me as a human being in equal measure to heterosexual people. It would be hard for me not to support him.”
Other Democrats are less concerned about the Senators’ stance. “The most important thing now is to fight against any blatant discrimination, such as the Federal Marriage Amendment,” said Emily Giske, vice chair of the state Democratic Party. Some openly gay and lesbian elected officials, like State Senator Tom Duane and City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, concurred.
But the farther you get away from the organized Democratic Party, the sharper the anger is at the two Senators.
“They come to our dinners, they stand with us, march with us, but when it comes to marriage, where are they? They’re gone,” said Brendan Fay, the organizer of a gay-friendly St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens. “It’s appalling.”
The oddity is just how short the step from “appalling” to avant-garde really is: one word. The Senators, like Mr. Kerry, support civil unions, domestic partnerships-marriage by any other name. To some of their peers, it’s a distinction without a difference.
“I suspect that people in the gay community will understand the nuance of the difference between civil unions and marriage a lot more than most other people,” Mr. Nadler said. “If you’re supporting civil unions, unless you think you’re going to really explain the difference, you might as well support gay marriage.”