Victory for gay rights in New York

The state becomes the sixth in the US to legalise same-sex marriage.

Cheers and celebrations echoed around New York's West Village well into the early hours - outside the Stonewall Inn where the modern gay rights movement was born more than forty years ago. For last night another milestone in equality for lesbians and gay men was passed - as the bill legalising same-sex marriage was signed into state law.

For New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, this was a defining victory on an issue he'd made one of his top priorities - a victory too, for social justice. "New York has finally torn down the barrier that has prevented same-sex couples from exercising the freedom to marry and from receiving the fundamental protections that so many couples and families take for granted," he said. "With the world watching, the Legislature, by a bipartisan vote, has said that all New Yorkers are equal under the law. With this vote, marriage equality will become a reality in our state, delivering long overdue fairness and legal security to thousands of New Yorkers."

New York is now America's sixth, and largest state, to allow same-sex marriage, after the bill passed by 33 votes to 29. Just one Democrat voted against - but four Republicans crossed the floor to ensure the measure went through. One of them, Stephen Sarland, who voted against the issue two years ago, said he'd changed his mind. "I have to define doing the right thing as treating all persons with equality", he said, adding that he was at peace with his conscience. The city's republican mayor Michael Bloomberg, who'd helped to lobby for the law, called it an "historic triumph", declaring "together we have taken the next big step on our national journey toward a more perfect union".

The lobbying effort had been backed by a huge number of political figures and celebrities - from Bill Clinton to Lady Gaga - indeed the singer urged her fans to contact one Republican lawmaker, Mark Grissini, to persuade him to back the measure - and last night, he did just that.
But the vote was a huge political victory for Governor Cuomo, who spent two years planning and campaigning for this moment. As New York Magazine revealed, he worked relentlessly to make it happen. A close confidante paid tribute to his sheer persistance: "It's an orchestra, it's a symphony, it's political skills. It's 500 phone calls to individual senators. It's birthday calls, it's anniversary calls, it's going to their district, it's all last year campaigning with them."

The final piece in the jigsaw was a deal over a special exemption for religious groups, who want the right to refuse to perform services or provide the space for same-sex weddings. That agreement won over the final Republican votes, and the bill was passed into law.

There have been protests, of course - the state's Catholic bishops said they were "deeply disappointed and troubled", while the National Organisation for Marriage, which had lobbied hard against the new legisaltion accused New York's republican party of tearing up its contract with the voters'.

As for President Obama, his public position on gay marriage is said to be "evolving". From an early commitment to the policy, when he first ran for the Senate fifteen years ago, he changed his views during the 2008 election, declaring himself in favour of civil unions, but no more - citing his religious faith. This week at a fundraiser in New York, he tod a group of activists that "gay and lesbian couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country", although he wouldn't give any specific commitment on the same-sex marriage issue.

But last night there were plenty of New Yorkers who were unequivocally overjoyed - same-sex couples will just have to wait 30 days before the first marriages can take place.

Not so much of the country, though: it's still banned in 39 states - while California remains in something of a hiatus, after a judge overturned a ban - yet no gay marriages are able to take place while his ruling is being appealed - a decision which could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Governor Andrew Cuomo is certainly hoping New York will lead the way: "This vote today will send a message across the country.", he said. "This is the way to go, the time to do it is now, and it is achievable; it's no longer a dream or an aspiration."

Or as Lady Gaga put it, on Twitter: 'the revolution is ours to fight for love, justice+equality. Rejoyce, NY and propose. We did it!!'.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.