March 16, 2006

'Ithaca 50' Sparks Marriage Debate

Print More

The evolution of the judicial, political and moral battle for same-sex marriage rights, led in part by the “Ithaca 50,” provoked reactions from many involved in this cause.

In Feb. 2006, the New York State Appellate Court ruled against the Ithaca 50 in a 5-0 decision, confirming Justice Mulvey’s earlier ruling at the local Supreme Court level. Another same-sex marriage case, Hernandez v. Robles in New York City, was dealt a similar ruling by the NYS Appellate Court in December 2005; in a 4-1 decision, the Appellate Court reversed the pro-same-sex marriage ruling made earlier by the New York City Supreme Court. These two cases, as well as two others in New York, await hearing in the NYS Court of Appeals, the highest civil court in the state.

If the Court of Appeals rules against the case for same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian couples may have a chance at obtaining the rights heterosexual couples have through the NYS legislature.

“It would be a normal bill,” said Alderman Shane Seger ’99 (D-1st Ward). “A bill for same-sex marriage would have to be sponsored by the legislature, passed through the state assembly and senate, and then the governor would have to sign it.”

NYS Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor in 2006, said to The Sun that he would “support a statute to make it [same-sex marriage] statutorily acceptable” and that he believes “same-sex marriage should be constitutional and legal.”

“The opinions of the governor are very important if this issue goes to the legislature,” said Jason Seymour, one of the plaintiffs in the Ithaca 50 case.

Jason West, the New Paltz, N.Y. mayor whose contentious actions – marrying gay couples – made national headlines two years ago, believes this issue to be one explicitly for the legislature.

“In both Ithaca and New Paltz, couples are asserting their civil and constitutional rights,” West said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re waiting on courts to make a decision – the legislature could clarify any gray areas in the law, but there’s only a deafening silence from them.”

In fact, West sees this issue as one already settled.

“There is nothing in the law that says it’s illegal to marry a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. It only says that marriage is a contract between two parties,” he said.

Seger sees this open support for same-sex marriage as emblematic of the “shifts in the comfort levels of elected officials in the state and country” and cited the fact that Andrew Cuomo did not commit to supporting same-sex couples four years ago while running for governor, in contrast to Spitzer’s recently stated support.

Gwendolyn Dean, coordinator of Cornell’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender resource center, said the issue is “not like the kiss of death like it was before” for politicians, but added that New York is considered a “blue state” and that these ideological changes are not nationwide.

She went on to say that the debate on this issue indicates “a real change in social institutions. Whether or not people are for or against same-sex marriage, this indicates a big shift in the public consciousness.”

At the same time, Calvin Selth ’07, LGBTQ liaison to the Student Assembly saw same-sex marriage as an “issue that conservatives have used for political power to garner votes in swing states without addressing other issues.”

Jason Hungerford, another plaintiff in the Ithaca 50 case and Seymour’s partner, stressed the idea that if he and his partner were married, “it would not take anything away from anyone else already married.”

He said that marriage would only confer on them the 1400 federal and 800 state rights heterosexual couples would acquire. Hungerford and Seymour said that heterosexual couples marry out of love and, given the simplicity of the marriage application, take for granted the legal rights and benefits they receive once married.

As a local elected official and marriage officer, Seger, who is openly gay, can marry people but cannot be married.

“I do not feel like a fully participating member of society,” he said. “Marriage is an institution I can not participate in and there’s something fundamentally wrong with that.”

Steven Pelle ’07, the editor-in-chief of the Cornell Review, objects to same-sex marriage and considers the fight for such marriage to be akin to “arguing for a privilege because everyone has the right to marry someone of the opposite sex, but in wanting to marry someone of the same sex, [gay and lesbian couples] are basically arguing for an extra right.”

Dean noted that the structure of marriage laws especially benefit those with more assets: the more assets one has, the more one gains from being married, making the issue important for the middle-class segment of the LGBT community.

Selth cautioned against the LGBT community making same-sex marriage their sole issue and said that “without discounting the validity of the same-sex marriage struggle, it distracts attention from other issues of discrimination against the LGBT community.”

He added that “it’s not the single all-encompassing issue or a panacea for the community – once same-sex marriage is legalized, not everything will be perfect.” Selth listed adoption rights and discrimination in the workplace as other important concerns and suggested the idea of a holistic approach to LGBT rights.

“Marriage is what makes gay white middle-class men different from their heterosexual counterparts,” Selth said. According to Dean, that particular group has a “strong investment in the same-sex marriage issue.”

Selth offered the idea that same-sex marriage is a way for the LGBT community to assimilate into mainstream America and said that “assimilation happens when you don’t want to feel different or marginalized.”

Dean agreed with Selth in that the desire for marriage is “assimilationist because through marriage gay and lesbians couples say they’re exactly like heterosexual couples.”

“The thought that it is always better to be married than not is problematic,” Dean said. She does not want to see the marriage issue “close down” alternate options on the structure of family relationships.

“I do want same-sex marriage legalized but I’m not saying it’s the only appropriate relationship for adults to be in,” she added.

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer