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