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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.