newlyweds: George Jurgsatis and Robert Barnes after
getting hitched in Albany. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle
Comes Love, Then Comes...
By Ashley Hahn
so radical about marriage equality, love, and understanding?
And will New York take the plunge?
was like I was hit by a Mack truck,” Elissa Kane says about
knowing that Lynne Lekakis was the one.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
partners: (l-r) Bob Streams and John Shields, mayor
of Nyack. Photo by: Morris J. Kennedy/The Journal News
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
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.
Tripi and Jeanne Vitale are one of the couples whom the ACLU
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
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.
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
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
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
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
in hand: (l-r)Elissa Kane and Lynne Lekakis walk down
the aisle. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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.”