FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY, UPSTATE MAYOR HELPED SPARK SAME SEX MARRIAGE LAW
This June marks the 10-year anniversary of New York State having legalized same sex marriage, a major civil rights moment for the state and the country.
But it was 17 years ago this month, in an important historical footnote, that a young mayor helped ignite the issue in New York when he made international headlines by marrying dozens of same sex couples in his upstate village of New Paltz, believing the laws barring marriage between anyone other than a man and woman were unjust and unconstitutional.
For Jason West, then just 26-years-old, his actions were a no-brainer despite the threat of possible jail time from the local district attorney who hit the mayor with 19 misdemeanors for “solemnizing” marriages in which the couples did not obtain a license (the charges were eventually dropped). There were random threats of violence against him and powerful state leaders, including then-Gov. George Pataki and then-state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, waded in, trying to stop the second-year mayor and nullify the marriages.
“For obvious reasons it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” West told me this week. “It was one of the best times of my life. The looks on people’s faces (as he married them) made all the risks worth it.”
Once hearing of West’s plans, gay and lesbian couples from different parts of the state trekked to New Paltz on Feb. 27, 2004 to exchange wedding vows in full public view in a parking lot near Village Hall. The couples had smiles on their faces and many had tears in their eyes. Supporters, including other members of the same sex community, SUNY New Paltz students and those who simply believed the time had come to recognize same sex marriage happily cheered them on while a small group of protestors, including the disgustingly named “God Hates F–s”, held up signs and angrily shouted their venom and bile.
West married 25 gay and lesbian couples that first day. Another more than 1,000 couples quickly added their names to the waiting list.
He was following in the footsteps of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who in the prior weeks married more than 3,400 same-sex couples.
In the end, those couples West united were torn asunder by New York law, which outlawed same sex marriage for another seven years. But the ball got rolling that day in New Paltz. What once seemed inconceivable was soon to become inevitable. Civil unions, which even some Republicans supported, were no longer good enough. Same sex couples wanted the same legal rights and benefits that heterosexual married couples enjoyed. They also wanted the basic human right to stand up in front of their friends and family to do what so many took for granted, to express their love for each other.
In 2009, five years after West tried to move the needle, then-Gov. David Paterson pushed for the Legislature to take up a same sex marriage bill. While it easily passed in the Assembly, where Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell emotionally and relentlessly shepherded the legislation through, it failed 38-24 in the Senate, even though the Democrats controlled the chamber.
Two years later, the Republicans won back control of the Senate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat in his first year in office, worked to convince four Senate GOPers to vote their consciences. The bill passed 33-29 and was signed into law, making New York one of the first states to legislatively legalize same sex marriage.
As a reporter for the New York Post, I was there in New Paltz in 2004 when West took his stand. Seven years later, working for the Daily News, I stood in the chamber as the Senate acted, recognizing the historic nature of what I was witnessing. But it really hit home just how important the measure was, not just in New York but across the country, several months later when I ran into a group of very happy and well dressed people in an elevator in the state Capitol. When I asked what they were there for, they said they came in from Wisconsin to get married. When I asked why travel all that way, a person responded, “because we can’t get married in our state.”
That was 10 years ago. All the hoopla that started with Jason West and led to major protests at the state Capitol in subsequent years has virtually disappeared. Life has gone on as it should. Gay couples, like straight couples, marry. Some divorce. Some live happily ever after.
That’s all Jason West, now 43, wanted all those years ago when he stood up to authorities and fought for equal rights for all. He lost his reelection effort in 2007 but was voted in as mayor again for one last four-year term in 2011. Since then, he went to grad school, has been a housepainter, founded the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, and last year began serving as energy manager for the City of Albany.
West says he truly believes what happened in New Paltz, and the international attention it garnered, helped lead the way to the legalization of same sex marriage in New York.
“What we did in New Paltz, it wasn’t just me, it was a team effort,” he said. “People were building the fire in New York, we just lit the spark. We were in the right place at the right time.”
Ken Lovett is a former 30-year reporter who covered the New York State Capitol for a quarter of a century for three news organizations, including as Albany Bureau Chief for the Daily News and as a correspondent for the New York Post.