NY Bill Gives Gay Rights A Big Boost

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N.Y. Governor Cuomo has signed a bill making N.Y. the sixth and largest U.S. state to legalize gay marriage. Guest host Tony Cox explores how significant the passage of the law is and what challenges lie ahead. Cox speaks with Julie Bolcer, a N.Y. correspondent for The Advocate, and R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that advocates for gay and lesbian Americans.

TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

News today that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi now faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. We'll talk about the international effort to oust Gadhafi and why the African Union isn't playing a larger role. That's coming up.

First, new legislation will make same-sex marriage legal in New York in less than a month. That brought a sense of joy and celebration to New York City's gay pride parade and in New York's state capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

COX: Late Friday night and minutes after the Republican-led New York State Senate passed the legislation, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill making New York the sixth and by far the largest state to allow same-sex weddings. The District of Columbia also recognizes gay marriage. Still there are 29 states with constitutional bans against gay marriage and twelve other states with anti-gay marriage laws. So, if New York's law signals national momentum for the gay rights movement, is this momentum likely to bring rapid change?

Joining us now to talk about that, R. Clarke Cooper. He is the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that supports equality for gay and lesbian Americans. He joins me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us, Julie Bolcer. She is the New York correspondent for The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine. Welcome to the both of you.

R. CLARKE COOPER: Thank you, Tony.

JULIE BOLCER: Thank you for having me.

COX: Clarke, let me begin with you. As a Republican majority Senate passed this bill, I would assume that this is cause for celebration among the Log Cabin Republicans on a number of levels and it suggests to me that perhaps the stars must really be in alignment for you?

COOPER: Well, we would agree with that, Tony. Actually, as we say, true conservative values include individual liberty, individual responsibility, and essentially that, you know, freedom means freedom for everyone. That's actually a quote from Dick Cheney, who's a big supporter and big conservative advocate for marital equality and respecting and supporting those tenants. I like to call them conservative book ends.

Individual responsibility, of course, that's, you know, taking care of yourself. Not being dependent on the government. Like all good conservatives push for and also individual liberties respecting those civil liberties that we all hold so dear in the United States.

COX: Before I bring Julie in, do you think that the Log Cabin Republicans in other states could have pulled this off or is this a particularly unique New York situation?

COOPER: Well, we have a very, very strong presence in New York. We have two chapters in New York, one upstate and one downstate. I would say that we have chapters that probably had that capacity throughout the U.S. Not all are equal, they're very different. We have 42 chapters in the United States, but New York has been a very strong presence for a long, long time.

COX: Julie talk about the significance of it, put it in perspective for us.

BOLCER: I think that the passage of the marriage equality legislation in New York, it's a significant and a major victory with the potential to boost marriage equality movement nationwide.

First and foremost, it presents a model for achieving legislatively the passage of marriage equality bills in other states. You suggest that in some ways it's not a situation that can happen everywhere and I would agree with that. But I think that there are factors and conditions in New York that can be replicated in other states even this year, where victory appeared to be close and we are likely to see action in those places first.

For example, in Maryland or in Rhode Island. It will be a boost certainly in places where they are also on the cusp and where they have factors such as a strong governor who is supporting the issue, as Governor Cuomo did here, where groups can coordinate in their fund raising communications and field work and where polling shows that the majority of people in the state are supportive of the issue.

COX: Have you ever seen, Julie, in your experiences, the kind of euphoria that was evident in New York with the gay pride parade as a result of this happening on that same weekend?

BOLCER: No, I certainly have not. And I would say, as you suggested and as Clarke agreed, it would seem that the stars were aligned even for that kind of celebration. As Governor Cuomo said after the parade yesterday, it was an electric experience that openly gay city council speaker Christine Quinn who has marched in many parades says that, you know, this one was just unlike any other. So, I think those who attended, those who marched and, you know, those who observed would say, there's really been nothing like the level of celebration.

Starting on Friday night outside of the historic Stone Wall Inn, the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement, when people learned of the vote and spilled into the streets of the West Village.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are talking about the state of New York passing a same-sex marriage law. Our guests are Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, and Julie Bolcer, the New York correspondent for The Advocate. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin.

Let me play a short clip from President Obama, who was in New York just last week at a fundraiser that was hosted by leaders of the gay and lesbian community. He last spoke specifically about same-sex marriage and civil unions back in December, saying at the time that he personally doesn't support same-sex marriage but that his feelings are constantly evolving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

President BARACK OBAMA: At this point, what I've said is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have.

COX: To put this in a political perspective, Clarke, does this action by the New York legislature, does it move the dial for Obama and should it?

COOPER: Well, it should move the dial for many politicians. There's a pragmatism that evolves each time there's a vote like this. We can look back as far as recently as December with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the United States Congress. The Republicans who voted for that and the Democrats, the members who voted for repeal were on the right side of history. And it seemed that the so-called issues and problems that might have occurred from that is the dog that didn't bark.

Politicians are going to find with the advocacy or voting for marriage equality actually is not only - it's also being on the right side of history. And these aren't - there should not be political ramifications for being on the right side for supporting it.

However, if you didn't support and you're kind of wishy washy, President Obama's not alone. The Republican presidential candidates who've said similar things, we like to point out at least on our side of the aisle that Dick Cheney is further a field on this issue than President Obama is. And you've got the former vice president, a big conservative leader, advocating for full marriage equality.

But again, President Obama's not the only politician out there who keeps vacillating. Part of that's probably because he's looking at poll numbers. Poll numbers show many Americans would say civil liberties, some type of civil union or some kind of legal status of protection is fine. The word marriage is where a number of Americans get hung up on. It's the word marriage.

And part of that education is to explain to folks that the courthouse process is not a religious process. It's a legal transaction. It's a contract and there is no state role in the church. There is a separation of church and state. And there's a big education process for both sides of the aisle on this issue.

COX: Well, the president certainly has issues with the word marriage so far. Let me come to you Julie to talk specifically about the legislation and what limitations there are attached to it. For example, if a person comes from, let's say, Nevada, California, pick a state, goes to New York, gets married, goes back to their home state, will that marriage be recognized in their home location?

BOLCER: Well, they're - as you mentioned, when the law takes effect on July 24th, there is not a residency requirement in New York. So, couples will be able to come from everywhere. That being said, the two particular states that you mentioned, for example, would have different laws. It would depend on the laws in one's home state.

For example, in nearby New Jersey where there are civil unions, if one were to go across the Hudson and get a marriage ceremony in New York and return to New Jersey, it would be recognized as a civil union. So I would say that any same-sex couple that wishes to marry certainly will be eligible to do so in New York beginning on July 24th, that they would need to consult with the laws in their particular state in terms of the level of recognition they have there. And then of course, federally, the recognition is not there yet.

COX: For those who get married in New York and remain in New York, where they have the same rights and privileges as heterosexual married couples, would it be different?

BOLCER: Yes, the legislation as it is written, yes, that would be the case.

COX: Clarke seems to think differently.

COOPER: Not exactly.

BOLCER: No.

COOPER: Well, just on the federal level because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

BOLCER: Right. Right.

COOPER: There's issues. So if you're a federal employee, I mean, there are restrictions. And this is what's going to run up against this, state by state. As states come on either legislatively or judicially identifying marriage equality and/or civil unions, DOMA is this huge problem. And it's why I believe that the Department of Defense will eventually become a major change agent on DOMA, because when repeal is finally fully completed, implemented, and you have open service, you're going to have the largest federal employer having to deny services and access to benefits because of DOMA. DOMA precludes a lot from access to services, legal status, not to mention there's about 1,200 tax codes that are dependent on the word marriage.

COX: Let me ask you, as we bring the conversation to a close, Julie, this, and I'm going to try to squeeze one more in for you, as well, Clarke. Has there been polling that you know of since the passage of this act on Friday that gives you some indication how the country is feeling about this?

BOLCER: There's none that I am immediately aware of, no. But I think that even with the level of national conversation that has been opened, it is always certainly from the perspective of advocates for marriage equality, that is a good thing. I mean, a key part of moving the ball forward in New York was popular opinion and to the extent that the conversation continues to move to the extent that, as you saw at the gay pride parade in New York City yesterday that gay couples are out there. People are open about their lives. This presses that forward and that's really immeasurably and, I think, incalculably helpful for the discussion.

COX: I don't think I'm going to have enough time to get your answer to this question, but I'm going to throw it out there really quickly for you, and that is this, Clarke, timing is everything and there are those who have suggested that this in the past was not the time. Is it the time now? Really quickly.

COOPER: Yes, it is. And it's also the time to address employment on discrimination as well. But it's the right time and it's a good time for the Republican Party to look at their 18 to 34 demographic. Because if the party doesn't move forward, we're going to lose that vote.

COX: R. Clarke Cooper is the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. Julie Bolcer is the New York correspondent for The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian news magazine. Thank you both for your time today.

BOLCER: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you.

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