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NEWS ANALYSIS: Important lessons to learn from New York

As Americans celebrated Gay Pride over the weekend in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities large and small, supporters of LGBT rights cheered the latest victory for marriage equality.

Late Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into state law a bill that lets gay and lesbian couples get married, a historic vote that was approved by a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democrat-controlled Assembly.

The first important lesson is that the marriage-equality issue drew bipartisan support in New York, and was ushered to a vote by an enthusiastic Democratic governor who reached across both sides of the aisles to build a coalition of supporters.

Michael Barbaro of The New York Times has written a brilliant piece about how an unlikely mix of forces united behind the bill.

The story of how same-sex marriage became legal in New York is about shifting public sentiment and individual lawmakers moved by emotional appeals from gay couples who wish to be wed.

But, behind the scenes, it was really about a Republican Party reckoning with a profoundly changing power dynamic, where Wall Street donors and gay-rights advocates demonstrated more might and muscle than a Roman Catholic hierarchy and an ineffective opposition.

And it was about a Democratic governor, himself a Catholic, who used the force of his personality and relentlessly strategic mind to persuade conflicted lawmakers to take a historic leap.

What strikes many observers is how New York succeeded, where in California, LGBT civil rights groups failed to prevent Proposition 8 from passage. Barbaro explains how Cuomo avoided the mistakes made in California.

Mr. Cuomo was diplomatic but candid with gay-rights advocates in early March when he summoned them to the Capitol’s Red Room, a ceremonial chamber with stained-glass windows and wood-paneled walls.

The advocates had contributed to the defeat of same-sex marriage in 2009, he told them, with their rampant infighting and disorganization. He had seen it firsthand, as attorney general, when organizers had given him wildly divergent advice about which senators to lobby and when, sometimes in bewildering back-to-back telephone calls. “You can either focus on the goal, or we can spend a lot of time competing and destroying ourselves,” the governor said.

This time around, the lobbying had to be done the Cuomo way: with meticulous, top-down coordination. “I will be personally involved,” he said.

The gay-rights advocates agreed, or at least acquiesced. Five groups pushing for same-sex marriage merged into a single coalition, hired a prominent consultant with ties to Mr. Cuomo’s office, Jennifer Cunningham, and gave themselves a new name: New Yorkers United for Marriage.

Those who veered from the script faced swift reprimand.

How New York did it is the second lesson to learn. LGBT groups, ranging from Gay Inc. to grassroots groups, often spend so much time fighting against each other that they miss the big picture: They all want equality and they are tired of being second-class citizens, but often differ wildly on how to effect change.

The splintering of the LGBT community is detrimental to the cause of equality. But New York showed that unity is possible and it can lead to success.

On July 24, New York will become the sixth state (after Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) along with the District of Columbia to legalize same-sex marriage. Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey permit civil unions, while California, the nation’s most populous state, is held in limbo by a court appeal of a historic ruling by District Judge Vaughn Walker that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Despite the New York success, much work needs to be done, as 37 states have banned marriage equality.

Anti-gay hate groups such as the National Organization for Marriage are pouring millions of dollars into campaigns to stop gay marriage. They are also funding attempts in Iowa and New Hampshire to overturn same-sex marriage, and vowing to take out politicians who support marriage equality.

Yet advocates of equality for all find a great deal of encouragement in the New York vote.

"Having same-sex marriage in New York will have tremendous moral and political force for the rest of the country – in part because New York is a large state, and in part because it hasn't come easily,'' Suzanne Goldberg, a Columbia Law School professor, told Reuters.

Public opinion polls continue to trend toward support for equal rights, hitting 53% this year in the Gallup Poll. Support tends to be strongest in the younger generations, while the most resistance comes from older Americans, for whom gay rights is something relatively new to them.

While a significant majority of Democrats and Independents support gay rights, the numbers plummet among Republicans. Still, the fact that a Republican-controlled New York Senate voted for gay marriage gives hope that public opinion is sharply turning, even among Republicans.

Prominent Republicans have come out in support of gay rights, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, and former first lady Laura Bush and her daughters. Barbaro in the Times noted that wealthy Republicans on Wall Street such as billionaire Paul Singer united behind the New York effort and wrote checks to help protect the Republican state senators who anticipate a cash backlash against their vote.

Longtime activists, including Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, were optimistic following the New York vote.

"Winning the freedom to marry in New York truly is a transformative moment for committed couples and for our country, a triumph for love and equality under the law,” Wolfson said. “Now that we’ve made it here, we’ll make it everywhere -- and as Americans’ hearts open and minds continue to change in favor of the freedom to marry, the momentum coming from New York’s giant step forward brings a nationwide end to marriage discrimination closer than ever.”

"New York sends the message that marriage equality across the country is a question of 'when,' not 'if,'" said Fred Sainz, the former San Diego resident who is a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

"History was made [Friday night] in New York. This victory sends a message that marriage equality across the country will be a reality very soon," said Joe Solmonese, president of HRC.

Chad Griffin, co-founder and board president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), which is fighting Proposition 8, called the New York vote "a major turning point in civil rights history."

Getting married in New York

Want to get married in New York? Gay and lesbian couples don't have to be residents of the Empire State to wed there.

Applications for marriage licenses will be accepted starting on Tuesday, July 5. Apply in person or via the Internet by clicking HERE.

Weddings will begin starting Sunday, July 24.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.