Advocates Try Again To Legalize Gay Marriage In N.Y.

Gay marriage advocates in New York are preparing another effort at persuading the state legislature to approve same-sex marriage. Recent polls show that a majority of New Yorkers support same-sex marriage. A similar bill failed a year and a half ago.

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In New York, gay rights advocates are mounting a new campaign to win approval for same-sex marriage in the state legislature. Similar bills have failed before, most recently just a year and a half ago. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, backers of same-sex marriage believe the outcome may be different this year.

JOEL ROSE: Back in 2007, New York State Assembly member Teresa Sayward gave a floor speech that's become a touchstone for supporters of same-sex marriage.

Assemblymember THERESA SAYWARD (Republican, New York): I knew when my son was very young that he was different. It wasn't because he was feminine. It wasn't because he spoke different.

ROSE: Sayward is a Republican with a voting record that's generally instep with her conservative district in the Adirondacks, but not on this issue.

Assemblymember SAYWARD: I knew that I had to say something. And I just told the story of my family and why I believe with all of my heart that it's a civil rights issue, and that my son should not be discriminated against because he's gay.

So let's search our hearts tonight and do the right thing. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROSE: The bill passed in the assembly, but it stalled in the State Senate. The same thing happened again in late 2009. The backers say a lot has changed since then. They point to a recent poll showing that 58 percent of New Yorkers support same-sex marriage.

Ross Levi is executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.

Mr. ROSS LEVI (Executive Director, Empire State Pride Agenda): At the end of the day, when the people of New York are on your side - as they are so solidly here - the elected official is doing the right thing and the politically smart thing by standing up for an issue like this, marriage equality.

Reverend JASON MCGUIRE (Member, The Coalition to Save Marriage in New York): The bottom line is every time the American people have had a chance to vote on this issue, they have rejected it.

ROSE: Reverend Jason McGuire is part of The Coalition to Save Marriage in New York, an umbrella group that opposes same-sex marriage on social and religious grounds. He points to a different poll, one that shows a slim majority of New Yorkers support the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. And McGuire says the numbers in rural Republican districts are even more dramatic.

Rev. MCGUIRE: There is still very much an Upstate-Downstate legislative divide, two-to-one Republican voters support marriage between a man and a woman. That's something that those Upstate Republican senators and members of the assembly cannot forget.

ROSE: Just in case, McGuire is driving around the state in an RV talking to voters to about the issue. But McGuire and his coalition are working against a popular governor with a bully pulpit. Democrat Andrew Cuomo has made support for same-sex marriage part of his reform agenda, which he's touting in a series of campaign-style rallies, including this one last week in Syracuse.

Governor ANDREW CUOMO (Democrat, New York): Other states have now acted already on marriage equality and have passed New York. It's time New York catches up, and we have to do it in the next few weeks, in this legislative session.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

ROSE: Same-sex marriage is currently legal in five states and the District of Columbia. But New York's population is greater than all of them combined. That's not lost on opponents of same-sex marriage.

Brian Brown is president of the National Organization for Marriage, which is promising to spend a million-and-a-half dollars on TV ads and campaign contributions in New York.

Mr. BRIAN BROWN (President, National Organization for Marriage): We're hitting the airwaves. We're going directly to voters to ensure that senators are held accountable. There should not be a single Republican that votes yes on this bill.

ROSE: But Republican Teresa Sayward says she's living proof that a vote for same-sex marriage is not political suicide, although she didn't know that back in 2007.

Assemblymember SAYWARD: I thought I would never be elected in the State of New York again. As a Republican, we had always been told that, boy, you don't win in New York State unless you have the Republican line. And that is absolutely not true.

ROSE: Since coming out in favor of same-sex marriage, Assemblymember Sayward has stood for reelection twice and won easily both times. If a single Republican in the State Senate announces support for a bill, Sayward thinks others would follow. But so far, no one has tested her theory.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

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