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Winning Equality in New York and California

The news from the New York State Senate this week was sad to hear. In their vote on a bill that would have ended marriage discrimination against same-sex couples in the state, eight Democratic senators and five Republican senators who had indicated their willingness to vote for the bill ended up voting no. The bill did not pass.

Watching the senate debate and slow roll call vote took me back to our experiences here in California trying to pass a marriage bill through our legislature. In 2005, California became the first state in the nation to see its legislature pass a bill extending marriage to same-sex couples in the state. It wasn’t our first try, however. Similar to New York, we had tried unsuccessfully to pass a marriage bill the previous year.

New York is doing the right thing. The Empire State Pride Agenda who have been building support for years and the many LGBT advocates in the state are using what they have learned through the vote to hold those senators who didn’t vote for LGBT rights accountable. Without an actual vote, you often don’t know what you don’t know. Now they know the score, and they are working hard to right this wrong.

California’s Marriage Bills

Through a hard-fought legislative effort, California created a domestic partnership registry that went into effect in 2000. However, it came with no substantive rights for same-sex couples. Former Assemblymembers Carole Migden, who authored the bill establishing the registry, and Jackie Goldberg introduced several bills sponsored by EQCA that expanded the registry to include almost every right and responsibility that married spouses were afforded under California law. But we knew we had to do more. We had to win marriage.

In the 2003-2004 legislative session, then-Assemblymember and now Senator Mark Leno introduced a marriage equality bill sponsored by EQCA. The bill passed its first committee but did not make it to the floor for a vote. In the next session, Leno introduced another marriage bill sponsored by EQCA, which saw a floor vote in the Assembly that fell first six and then four votes shy of passing in June 2005. Two of the six members who changed their mind in June had pledged in writing to vote for marriage equality as part of their EQCA PAC questionnaires, and we were able to show them their signed commitment.

A week after the bill failed in the Assembly, Leno and EQCA moved to the Senate and in September 2005, it passed. EQCA had worked over the summer to secure the additional four votes that were needed in the Assembly through an aggressive lobbying effort targeting members in their districts. The Assembly then voted again just days after the Senate, and this time it passed that chamber as well.

It was a close vote. Leno shared his personal story during the debate. But he was not always received kindly. Assemblymember Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia) said:

“Marriage should be between a man and a woman, end of story. Next issue. It’s not about civil rights or personal rights, it’s about acceptance. They want to be accepted as normal. They are not normal.”

Leno had many long, difficult conversations with other Assemblymembers to help them understand the importance of their vote for the bill. EQCA lobbied hard for the bill, bringing supporters to Sacramento to talk to their legislators and generating tens of thousands of phone calls and emails from constituents to their legislators in support of marriage quality.

When it finally passed, LGBT people and our allies across the state celebrated. It was an exciting moment.

We knew all along that getting Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature would be a big challenge. The legislature held onto the bill for two weeks to buy time, while EQCA worked behind the scenes to try to convince the governor to sign. We met with the Governor and First Lady and his senior staff, we delivered over 50,000 postcards from Californians urging the Governor to sign the bill, with families delivering the postcards to the Governor’s Office, and we ran a hard hitting television ad urging the Governor to be a hero and sign the bill. Our best efforts still did not convince him, however. In his veto message he argued that a court decision or a voter initiative was the right way to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

In 2007, we tried again. Now-Senator Leno introduced a second marriage bill that EQCA sponsored. This time the bill passed both houses of the legislature with a few extra votes, but the governor again chose to veto.

What Next?

Looking back on the marriage debates in our own legislature and at the debate in New York this week, a couple of things are crystal clear to me.

First, as a community, we have to support only candidates who are 100 percent for equality. EQCA’s PAC only supports those candidates who are 100 percent for LGBT equality, and this includes support for marriage equality and for coverage for transition-related health care for transgender people. As a community, we must help to advance those candidates who support us all the way, and refuse to give to those candidates who do not. We must elect legislators, governors and other officials who will fully support our equality once they are in office.

Second, we have to hold those legislators and elected officials who fail to vote for or support our equality accountable. Legislators must know that if they backpedal on or do not vote for our rights, it will impact them when election time rolls around again. These legislators risk their endorsements and campaign donations when they cave in to pressure from our opponents. In some districts, these legislators are putting their re-election on the line.

Don’t give up on New York or California, or any other state. If we focus on electing the candidates that will support us 100 percent, and if we keep doing the difficult work of building support among elected leaders, we not only can see full equality from coast to coast – we will.

Cross-posted from journalist Karen Ocamb's blog, LGBT POV.

(Editor’s note: Coming on the heels of the gut-wrenching loss of marriage rights in Maine, the vote in the New York state Senate to oppose a marriage bill brought by openly gay Senator Thomas k. Duane was agony. (Read Paul Schindler’s excellent coverage in Gay City News here.) For some of us in California, the losses are constant reminders of our own unhealed grief and anger over Prop 8. But in fact, California didn’t have an easy time winning marriage equality in the state Legislature, either. So I asked Geoff Kors, Executive Director of Equality California, to write a piece about what that experience was like – to perhaps add a tiny bit of balm to the open wound our New York friends might be feeling. – Karen Ocamb)