Profiles of courage in marriage equality

In the end, once democracy and reason were allowed to flourish, the charge toward marriage equality could not be stopped. Once the people understood it and recognized the unfairness, the suffering and the hurt that an unfair and restrictive set of rules caused, the train couldn’t be stopped.

Of course, there were both winners and losers in this fight for civil rights. Once people put their collective shoulders to the wheel and insisted on basic civil rights for all, members of the old guard, including some religious leaders and a few conservatives in Democratic and democratic New York, were left out in the cold, wondering what had happened. There are times when even the most dogmatic of these religious leaders should know that the act of putting your full strength in opposition to progressive and right-minded legislation will most likely make you appear to be a troglodyte. Instead of helping your cause, you hurt it. That is exactly what happened here.

Even after it was made clear that no members of the clergy would be forced to marry anyone, the furious opposition continued. Even after it was emphasized that marriage equality was a civil matter, some religious officials insisted that they had the right to tell everyone else what to do. Nevertheless, when a religion attacks on any moral issue, that religion and its leaders had better be darn sure that its own collective skirts are clean. Part of the deep noise behind this fight was the continuing scandal among some organized religions over things like pedophilia. There they were playing the “moral card” when they themselves were incredibly vulnerable. If I had a nickel for everyone I heard mutter the word “hypocrisy,” I would be a rich man.

In every fight there are heroes, people who will sublimate personal ambition in favor of advancing the common good. In his book Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote about people in the history of the United States who had done exactly that. Sometimes, that courage proves to be the best politics that can be practiced. In this fight, one such person who defied the threats of the Conservative Party in New York was a Buffalo area first-term legislator. This man ran and won partially on his opposition to gay and lesbian marriage. When the vote for marriage equality came down to the wire, he rose to apologize to those he had hurt by adopting that position. That man, Senator Mark J. Grisanti, is one of those profiles in courage who will stand in the pantheon of New York politics. He may lose his seat as a result of his vote, but, unlike so many of his colleagues, he will be remembered as a true hero.

For his part, Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos was himself a hero. Weeks before the vote, he told me that he would allow an up or down vote in the Senate. He also said he was personally against the right for gays and lesbians to marry. We know that there were many in his conference who didn’t want an up or down vote. The old game in Albany is to take bills that would pass because the people wanted them but not allow them to come to floor for a vote. That way, we wouldn’t have to hold our legislators accountable. It had to be tough on Skelos to allow this vote, but the pressure was immense. All I know is that he kept his promise and deserves credit for that. The stakes were high, the Conservative Party had pledged to punish those who voted for this basic human right and that meant that the Republican slim majority in the Senate was at risk.

Finally, the man who made it happen, Governor Andrew Cuomo, gets the lion’s share of the credit. As a Catholic, it couldn’t have been easy to antagonize the leaders of his church, but he did it. If Cuomo hadn’t led in all of this, there is no doubt that it wouldn’t have happened. He captained the ship and he deserves the kudos for a superb leadership job.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/27/11

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