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New newlyweds: George Jurgsatis and Robert Barnes after getting hitched in Albany. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

First Comes Love, Then Comes...
By Ashley Hahn

What’s so radical about marriage equality, love, and understanding? And will New York take the plunge?

“It was like I was hit by a Mack truck,” Elissa Kane says about knowing that Lynne Lekakis was the one.

“You don’t know how wrong other things have been, until the thing clicks,” Lekakis echoes. “I hate to wonder what life would have been like . . .” Theirs was a whirlwind romance, and indeed quite romantic.

Kane and Lekakis have been together for five and a half years and knew very early on that they were meant for each other. Now they express pleasant surprise at how smoothly their relationship has gone; in addition to navigating domestic waters and raising a daughter, they also own a business together doing consulting work for nonprofit groups.

Kane says that they’re kind of like the couples that wear matching sweatshirts—though Lekakis insists that won’t ever happen—because they’re that comfortable with their life together.

“We’re always tag-teaming, whether it’s in parenting or in work or gardening or friends or family or community,” says Kane. At work, Kane says she’s the strategist and Lekakis is the implementer. Their office is in the living room of their charming Albany home, where their young daughter is curled up watching National Velvet.

“Our schedules are just incredibly busy between school and life and co-op and work . . . but somehow we do it together,” Kane says, referring to Lekakis’ duties on the Honest Weight Food Co-op board. The family is also active at their church, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany.

And, aside from all of the attention they’ve gotten, little seems to have changed in their lives since they were married at the FUUSA on March 27.

Both women, now in their 40s, say that when they came out, marriage for them was almost inconceivable. Since they settled down together, they had thought about holding a public affirmation of love, such as a commitment ceremony in the UU sanctuary to celebrate their fifth anniversary last September. Instead, they ended up helping some friends plan one at FUUSA for Labor Day, and back-burnered their own.

“We tried to imagine what a significant ceremony would look like, [but] we never let ourselves think too much about what that would look like because it was hard to think about it,” Kane says.

“I guess you sort of feel like you’re an anomaly most of your life, your adult life anyway, in my case,” Lekakis says. “So you don’t really wish [for] those things that everybody else has, until all of a sudden it occurs to you that you could have them.”

San Francisco happened. And then New Paltz happened. The community was abuzz with talk of booking flights and getting on waiting lists, but Kane and Lekakis were hesitant.

“It didn’t appeal to me so much, going far away where I didn’t know anybody” to get married, says Lekakis. “It didn’t appeal to me to have a stranger marry me.” And, she adds, it would have precluded celebrating with their family and friends.

They had decided to wait it out, “unless we were prepared to do something about it,” like file a lawsuit. “And we hadn’t yet taken that on as an effort,” Kane explains. Regardless of how much they felt like a family, they wondered what the point of getting married was if the rights and responsibilities of marriage didn’t come with the action.

But then fate came knocking in the form of their minister. In late March, the Rev. Samuel Trumbore called to ask if they still wanted to get married. On the Sunday when he called, Lekakis says she had just been wondering in the car why, as much as she wanted to actually be married, she didn’t feel “driven to go to New Paltz.” It was time to rethink things.

“We would be married, if it was legal,” says Kane. “Probably in the first year of being together, we would have been married. No question about it.” To them, the ability to share health insurance coverage, file joint tax returns, and have automatic entitlement to shared property made marriage an obvious choice beyond the confirmation of their devotion.

When Trumbore offered to marry them, with the full support of the congregation, “it looked like a great opportunity,” Lekakis says. “We were scared, but we thought we’ve done so much at different times in the past and we haven’t done much lately, and it’s time to step up.”

Twenty years ago, Kane never would have imagined that the people leading the charge for same-sex marriage in Albany would be “a straight minister and a predominantly straight social-responsibility committee.” But that’s just what happened; the congregation came out in favor of same-sex marriage, seeing it as a civil-rights issue and not merely as a gay issue.

On a clear Saturday a week after Trumbore’s call, their church was packed with family and friends who dropped their plans to come support not only Kane and Lekakis but also George Jurgsatis and Robert Barnes, who also were wed in the same ceremony.

The Monday after the ceremony, Trumbore, Kane, Lekakis, and about two-dozen supporters walked to City Hall, followed by news crews, to request marriage licenses. They were politely refused, which opened the door to litigation. Now they have pro bono representation and plan to sue the city.

“We are under attack, and our families are under attack in a very tangible way,” says Ross Levi, the Empire State Pride Agenda’s director of public policy and governmental affairs. “As a result we are responding the way anybody would if their family were under attack, which is in a unified, powerful, agitated manner.”

Among the assailants is the threat of a constitutional amendment, supported by President George W. Bush, that would define marriage as the union of a man and woman, and in so doing prohibit same-sex marriage. Essentially, this amendment would carve into stone the Defense of Marriage Act, 1996 Congressional legislation signed by President Clinton that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman and says that no state is required to recognize a marriage of a same-sex couple done in another location. Civil-rights activists see this as writing discrimination into the Constitution, and they point out that the only other time individual rights have been constitutionally restricted was with the Nineteenth Amendment, establishing prohibition.

The amendment has been called a naked attempt to recapture what had been soft support among Bush’s socially conservative base. It has also been praised as a defense of traditional values against what some dub a radical gay agenda.

But is it so radical and so gay?

Life partners: (l-r) Bob Streams and John Shields, mayor of Nyack. Photo by: Morris J. Kennedy/The Journal News

When asked, the openly gay mayor of Nyack, N.Y., John Shields, says, “The ‘radical gay agenda’ is people who fall in love, have committed relationships, having families, working in the community, joining the military. . . . That’s what they’re fighting for. And I don’t understand why it’s such a radical agenda.”

To civil-rights advocates, legalizing same-sex marriage is a matter of fairness and fulfilling the Constitution’s guarantee that citizens are equal. “It’s equal protection, which is simply that the state has to be able to justify excluding gay people from marriage,” explains James Esseks, litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. He adds that the state’s justification “can’t be just ‘we don’t like you folks,’ because ‘we don’t like you folks’ doesn’t work. It has to be some other reason other than even moral disapproval.”

Yesterday (Wednesday, April 7), the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit along with 13 couples from across the state (including one couple from Schenectady) against New York state, the state Department of Health, and its commissioner, on the grounds that denying same-sex couples the opportunity to marry violates the state constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process, as well as free speech.

Amy Tripi and Jeanne Vitale are one of the couples whom the ACLU and NYCLU are working with in its litigation. They were on the waiting list to be married in New Paltz, and have been in a committed relationship for seven years. Tripi is pregnant with their first child. When they lived in New York City they obtained a domestic partnership, and exchanged rings more than three years ago. “So in our hearts we’ve been married for three years,” Tripi says. “But it would be wonderful to have a marriage and one that we would have our family and friends join us in witnessing and at the same time have it be recognized by the state and ultimately the federal government.”

Their story, like so many, lives up to the definition of marriage put forward by New Paltz Mayor Jason West, as “the act of making public what is already written in two people’s hearts.”

West married 25 same-sex couples in late February, taking the village a bit by surprise, even though his views on the subject were publicly known. “I am not a minister, I’m a public official,” West says. “I have a moral obligation to not discriminate in who I marry.”

West stopped the marriages when he was charged with 19 misdemeanors by the Ulster County District Attorney, and suits were filed against him by the Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal network based in Florida and tied to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, on behalf of Robert Hebel, a village trustee. Hebel says he wants West to be removed from office; he also signed the injunction preventing West from performing any more marriages. Yesterday (April 7), West’s attorneys appealed that injunction, but the outcome of that hearing was unclear at press time.

After the weddings in New Paltz, the floodgates of possibility opened for same-sex marriage in New York state. Though no other official followed West’s lead, several New York municipalities, including Buffalo, Ithaca, Brighton, and Nyack, said they would recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

Mayor Shields of Nyack, a village on the western shore of the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge, was the first mayor in the state to voice his support for West and affirm that New York is obligated to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. For Shields, however, his public stand was about more than support. He wanted to marry same-sex couples in Nyack as well as have someone marry himself and his partner.

Before he moved forward, Shields came to Albany to testify at a hearing in support of marriage-equality legislation proposed by state Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan). He met with West, and sought some legal advice from a friend who happens to be former head of ACLU. In the meantime, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office weighed in.

In an informal opinion, Spitzer’s office said that while New York would likely recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state, New York could not license same-sex couples because of gender-specific language and the original legislative intent of the domestic relations law. That said, Spitzer added that the state’s laws might well be found unconstitutional by state courts.

In the face of this opinion, rather than proceeding to marry same-sex couples and becoming a defendant like West was by that time, Shields instead decided to file suit with other couples against state and local government.

“Everyone deserves the same rights,” Shields says. “You’re talking about a group of people here who live in communities, who live together, who frequently have children, who are raising families, who take part in the community, who are elected officials, volunteers in the community, work, pay taxes, and so forth and so on . . . who have done nothing wrong, so why are they being denied their rights?”

“If you think of it logically, not spiritually, not religiously, but logically, you’re denying a human being the same rights and responsibilities as another for no act that has caused any violence or hurt or pain to anybody,” says Kane.

Same-sex couples have to bend over backward to come anywhere close to the rights and responsibilities straight married couples get with marriage licenses. At the very least they have to jump through a series of legal hoops to establish joint ownership of property and obtain second- parent adoption if they have kids. “If they want to leave property to one another they have to make sure they have a will—especially if they have family members who don’t approve of their relationship—a will that’s going to be ironclad,” says Russell Sage College professor Pamela Katz, who believes that those legal precautions are “very much ad-hoc and always on shaky ground.” Katz published “The Case for Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage” in the Brooklyn Law School’s Journal of Law and Policy in 1999 and also testified in favor of Duane’s legislation.

Like several responsible couples, Kane and Lekakis have taken several of the necessary precautions to protect their family, including drafting wills, living wills and health-care proxies that allow each to make emergency medical decisions for the other. But those steps cover only a fraction of the rights and responsibilities that come with full civil marriage. Kane also points out that those measures cost extra money, far exceeding the $40 straight couples pay for a marriage license.

These legal maneuvers beg even more questions, according to Kane and Lekakis, who think many of the benefits of marriage shouldn’t be reliant on marriage as such. “If you really look at the bigger issues, what about health care for everybody, not dependent on your relationship to anyone,” Kane says.

Lekakis agrees that the system is flawed, “but don’t tell me I can’t get in it.”

In New York, there are more than 1,800 rights and responsibilities that come with marriage. That’s 1,138 federal rights and responsibilities, according to the federal General Accounting Office, and more than 700 on the state level, according to the Pride Agenda’s research.

Among the federal rights Levi points to are social-security benefits, priority immigration rights if you’re the spouse of an American citizen, and tax benefits, or what Levi calls the “un-marriage penalty, where you have to pay more in taxes than if you filed jointly.”

At the state level, marital status legally protects the right of spouses to inherit property, presumes parenthood of spouses regarding the custody of children, and gives survivors control over their partners’ remains. Spousal benefits are so far- reaching under state law that even inheriting a liquor license is contingent on spousal status. Marriage also requires same-sex couples to take on the responsibilities of commitment, including appropriate divorce proceedings and child support if the marriage fails.

New York is one of only 12 states without a DOMA on its books, which means that passing marriage-equality legislation is a possibility, something Duane has proposed in the state Senate and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) has proposed in the Assembly. Duane believes that the state’s domestic-relations law is gender-neutral, and that the Department of Health (which issues marriage licenses) says otherwise basically because same-sex marriage “was not on the agenda.” Gottfried denounces the exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution of marriage as a “profoundly discriminatory act. . . . Its only basis is that same-sex couples are ‘unfit’ and not human. And I can’t live with that idea.”

At the same time, Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Queens) has proposed a Defense of Marriage act, as has Assemblyman Anthony Seminario (R-Queens). Seminario says same-sex marriage “defies the laws of God and nature,” something he can’t condone. Bills both for and against same-sex marriage have been introduced numerous time before in the Legislature, but this year they both carry extra weight.

Hand in hand: (l-r)Elissa Kane and Lynne Lekakis walk down the aisle. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

In late March, the proposed wording of the two-sentence federal marriage amendment was slightly revised to ostensibly make room for states to enact civil-union legislation if they so choose. It is unclear, however, how many legislators that change might win over.

Civil unions are tossed around as the moderate option, but are widely regarded among civil-rights advocates as inadequate. They were invented as a compromise by Vermont’s Legislature to give same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities that the state covers, but not those 1,138 provided by the federal government. Some people believe that states should be allowed to decide how to treat same-sex couples, and many people who are on the fence about what to do believe that civil unions are either a fair compromise or at least a start.

But because civil unions don’t extend to the federal level, proponents of same-sex marriage and civil-rights activists contend this effectively creates second-class relationships and a separate but not equal arrangement.

States traditionally have been the arbiters of domestic-relations law almost exclusively. But federal courts and Congress have regulated state marriage laws before: notably, when it required Utah to outlaw polygamy as a condition for its consideration for statehood, and then in 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down state bans on interracial marriage. In this last case, Loving v. Virginia, the court said the federal government should let the states continue to define marriage law, permitting that they did not do so in ways that violated core constitutional principles, which the ban did by creating a second class of citizenship.

Ultimately, state-by-state marriage definitions still beg legal questions about portability of the marriage. That is, if same-sex marriages are allowed in one state and not another, what happens when couples cross borders? That, Katz says, is also the strongest pro-amendment argument, because the states already have very different marriage laws that will have to be reconciled. “There are mini Defense of Marriage Acts in some states, some states are having civil unions, Massachusetts is on the verge of marriage,” Katz elaborates. “If you have discrepancy among the states, there’ll be issues that arise that will be very difficult as people move around.”

“I think what happens is that marriage has really deep-seated religious connotations,” says Shields. “So when you say to someone, ‘I’m going to get married,’ [as a] same-sex couple you’re shaking the very core of what they believe in. So I think they react very strongly.”

One thing that might help clarify matters is really differentiating between civil marriage and religious marriage. Civil marriage would bear the full rights and responsibilities at the state and federal level without discrimination, while religions could still decide whom they wanted to marry without state interference. But marriage traditionalists dislike drawing this distinction.

“Same-sex marriage is not just about extending benefits to a small number of needy families. It is about transforming social as well as legal norms,” said Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, in her testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate judiciary committee, arguing for the constitutional amendment. “Laws banning interracial marriage had nothing to do with the purposes of marriage,” she continued, saying the interracial ban was about separating races to oppress one. “Marriage, by contrast, is about bringing two different sexes together.” She also contended that some research exists to show that children grow up best in families with two biological parents of the opposite sex.

But Gallagher agrees with supporters of same-sex marriage in believing that that marriage is far more than a benefits package that requires portability. It’s about couples in love, she acknowledges, and the realities of family life and children, and the stability that comes with the legal recognition.

The purpose of marriage, Esseks says, is “to recognize and protect relationships and provide stability for the adults in the relationship and to provide stability for the children.” He and the ACLU contend that those purposes “would be furthered by allowing gay people in” and that the protections and support that comes with the legal recognition of families can be used just as well by same-sex couples as straight couples.

Mayor Shields points out that already, “all of these couples are living together, they have their families and their friends. What’s going to change for any heterosexual couple? How is their life going to change? The answer is: It’s not. The only difference is that they guys living next door or the girls living next door have the same rights that they do.”

In asking for legalization of same-sex marriage, couples are trying to protect their families. They feel entitled to the “really basic, simple rights that straight couples barely think about,” says West. “The most Norman Rockwell, Republican aspects of our country are the ones that are the ‘radical gay agenda.’” But this issue is not so evenly divided on party lines.

“I accept the fact that for a lot of people, this is something new to think about, and they have to think about it for a while,” Shields says. “They have to digest it.” Shields, like many marriage-equality advocates, is simply glad that this conversation is even happening.

Polling data show the nation split closely in half, fluctuating only slightly in either direction. A Pew Research Center poll in mid-February indicated that the issue of same-sex marriage matters most to voters over 65, socially conservative Republicans, and evangelical Christians. But all told, the issue doesn’t drive a clear majority of Americans in their choices when they vote—few people list it consistently as a make-or-break issue.

In New York state, exit polls from the primary on March 2 indicated that 69 percent of Democratic voters are in favor of increased legal recognition for committed same-sex couples.

In a recent Siena Research Institute random phone poll of 628 people in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties, 54 percent believe the legal rights and privileges that marriage provides should be extended to same-sex couples, whereas 38 percent do not; 47 percent believe civil marriage is appropriate while 37 percent think civil unions would be sufficient. Overall, the poll indicated that local residents oppose the proposed federal marriage amendment by a margin of 2 to 1.

“I think it’s inevitable that this is going to be legalized, and that’s just a matter of simple demographics,” says West, noting that younger generations see same-sex marriage as less of a big deal, making legalization a matter of time. “It’ll become like segregated water fountains, something that just a generation ago was commonplace, but today is unthinkable.”

Duane agrees that same-sex marriage “will be a reality, and I think we have a responsibility to soften the defeat for those who object on religious grounds because we’re going to win and we all have to be tolerant of each other.”

When he saw couples getting married in San Francisco on television, Rex DeVoe turned to his partner David and said, “You know this is scary because now we have to get involved.” But, when he was talking with his friends, nobody knew of anything going on locally.

Since that now-famous Valentine’s Day weekend, same-sex couples have been wed on the steps of City Hall in New York; by the mayor, and later UU clergy, in New Paltz; and upriver here in Albany. They formed lines around the block outside of San Francisco’s City Hall, and now couples are following that lead by lining up at city halls nationwide. Of course, no one’s coming out with licenses, but they’re still lining up.

The Pride Agenda held one of several statewide town hall meetings in Albany in late March, in an effort to educate people about issues related to same-sex marriage and provide a forum for discussion. They advise people to contact their representatives at every level of government asking them to support marriage equality and oppose the amendment. That night DeVoe asked what the Pride Agenda and the Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center were doing to help people take action. He was told that they were supportive of actions like requesting licenses or holding weddings, but planning them would be up to people like him.

The Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center’s Keith Hornbrook says the center’s role “at this point has been providing support” and invigorating the community to confront these issues on its own. Partially that’s due to the fact that CDGLCC has less than a handful of full-time staff members, so its role as an organizer of actions is somewhat limited. Hornbrook says, however, that CDGLCC will meet soon with the mayors of Schenectady, Albany and Troy to talk about their stances.

After that town hall meeting, an ad hoc group formed and is starting to take action. They are planning a “get in line” campaign for Albany, in which couples will start getting in line at Albany City Hall to request licenses at the end of April. In the meantime, they’ve started a Yahoogroup called Albanycivilmarriage, and organized a meeting at Club Phoenix for April 18 and a fundraiser at Pearl on April 20.

Jim Larson, one of the group’s coordinators, says he thinks people are getting more concerned about the amendment, and that he found the recent marriages in Albany inspiring. Larson and hopes that their new group will be help galvanize the community—gay and straight alike—to mobilize and get active.

DeVoe says that when he sits back and thinks about it, their life here in Albany looks pretty average. “We’ve been together for nine years, we own a house, we pay taxes; normal, pretty boring life. Yet, we don’t have this right to be legally recognized as a couple.” So, while it’s nice to “be the quiet gay couple that doesn’t bother anybody,” he says, “if we don’t go out and if we don’t become active, then people aren’t going to see that we’re just like them.”

When he was younger, DeVoe says marriage didn’t really cross his mind, but since San Francisco he actually thinks about it, as though somebody turned the lights on. Now, he and his partner have rings picked out and he recently told David that he wants to get married in Washington Park, in May when the tulips are blooming.

When David asked him if he believed this was a real possibility, DeVoe said, “We have to believe that it is, because it’s what the United States is supposed to be about. It’s about people living together, having life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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