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Monday, June 20, 2011

Awaiting a Big Day, and Recalling One in New Paltz

With arms extended, Billiam van Roestenberg and Jeffery S. McGowan, after being married by mayor Jason West. 


HIGH FALLS, N.Y. — Jay Blotcher and Brook Garrett are as married as two men can be.
On their dining room table, they have laid out the proof: a New York City certificate of domestic partnership from April 2000, a Vermont certificate of civil union from October 2000, an actual marriage license from California in 2008 and — perhaps the sentimental favorite, if legally the most anemic — an affidavit of marriage from that euphoric moment in 2004 when nearby New Paltz, N.Y., became the center of the gay marriage movement.
That was when that village’s mayor, Jason West, then 26, rose to international prominence overnight by solemnizing the marriages of some two dozen gay couples in a parking lot outside the village hall. That was when a trunk full of Champagne went undrunk because everyone was so busy doing interviews for the national news. That was when images of Mr. Garrett blowing kisses became the permanent b-roll for any report about same-sex marriage, used by cable news and Jon Stewart to this day.
As Albany teeters on the brink of legalizing gay marriage in New York, the New Paltz couples have been recalling their winter shotgun wedding as a proud and historic moment. Several of the couples have been following the state legislation, calling senators and making the trip to lobby in Albany.
“I have a guarded optimism,” Mr. Blotcher, 51, said. “I’ve been working on the marriage equality issue since 1989,” long before it began to be viable as a political issue.
At that time, the partners of gay men with AIDS were often denied access to hospital rooms and, if their partner died, found themselves evicted and dispossessed. Mr. Blotcher, with fellow members of Act Up, marched into the New York City Municipal Building in pairs and demanded to be married.
When he and Mr. Garrett moved to the New Paltz area, “I thought, ‘Time to hang up the activist boots and just be a good neighbor,’ ” Mr. Blotcher said. “I didn’t think it would be an issue up here.”
But in 2003, when Mr. West became the first Green Party mayor elected in the state, he began to research whether he could marry same-sex couples. (Mr. West, who lost his first bid for re-election after the same-sex marriage fight, was recently restored to the mayor’s office at the ripe old age of 34.)
Mayors have the power to solemnize marriages, but the couple is supposed to get a license first. The law forbids an official from solemnizing a marriage without a license, but for couples, failure to obtain a license does not in itself render their marriage invalid.
So, with a secrecy designed to forestall opposition, some local gay and lesbian couples were put on standby. Most of them did not find out exactly when and where the weddings would be until hours before they occurred.
When word got out, satellite trucks and reporters converged on New Paltz to watch Billiam van Roestenberg and Jeffrey McGowan, the first couple in line, exchange vows. Instead of kissing (“I didn’t want The Post to make fun of us,” Mr. van Roestenberg said), they joined hands and thrust them into the air like Olympic medalists. There were so many people looking on, some of the brides and grooms got stage fright. Jeffrey Karliner, 57, and Henry Johnson, 56, heard what was happening and showed up with rings that Mr. Karliner, a teacher and goldsmith, made when the couple met in 1975. The rings no longer fit as well, but they demanded to be married, too.
Many of those who participated had long histories of advocating for gay rights and viewed the marriages as an act of civil disobedience as much as an emotional commitment. Still, Suzanne McHugh, 63, was unexpectedly touched when her family took the wedding seriously, and when her colleagues threw her a wedding shower.
“From a nonlegal point of view, we see no advantage to it,” she said of marriage.
“Yeah,” her wife, AnnaMae Schuler, said, “but are we more cynical now than we were then?”
Ms. McHugh laughed. “Could be,” she said.
The weddings brought New Paltz’s gay community into full bloom. Its first annual gay pride parade was held the next year, with 1,000 people in attendance, and the Hudson Valley Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Community Center opened in nearby Kingston shortly thereafter. The marriages, meanwhile, slipped into a legal twilight.
Mr. West was eventually charged with multiple misdemeanor counts of violating the state’s domestic relations law. Though the charges were dropped in 2005, several couples interviewed were convinced that their marriages had been nullified in the process.
But actually they have never been tested in court, said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. In a separate case in 2006, the Court of Appeals ruled that it was not unconstitutional for the state to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, but did not invalidate the New Paltz marriages.
Still, the marriages afford no legal status: gay couples cannot file a joint tax return or collect each other’s Social Security. Mary Mendola, 67, said she was denied a state property tax break for seniors because her partner, Joanne Still, was only 59, though if their New Paltz marriage was considered valid, they would be eligible.
Mr. van Roestenberg, who split up with Mr. McGowan and has a new partner, runs a picture-perfect organic farm where couples can get married in the apple orchard. It is not fair, he said, that he cannot get married there, too. Mr. van Roestenberg said he was not as diplomatic as he had been in 2004. “Now I’m a little more frank,” he said. “Those religious people are out of their minds. If they don’t believe in evolution and facts and science, they’re not going to believe in gay marriage.”
Mr. Blotcher said his years of activism had paid off. The fight against AIDS has gone from a fringe concern to a widely embraced cause, and public opinion has tilted toward gay marriage. “The world has shifted,” Mr. Blotcher said, “in support of everything I’ve been doing all these years.”

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