Column: Thrilling step, but work’s not done yet

07/07/2011 6:19 AM |

I shed a few tears last Friday night, tears I didn’t know were there until they spilled down my cheeks.

There’s probably not a gay person in New York who wasn’t touched by the state Senate vote in favor of the Marriage Equality Act. But after the thrill of the moment, many of us found ourselves wondering what it really means.

At the moment the vote tally was announced, it felt like a validation of my love for my partner of almost 22 years. It wasn’t just a political statement, but a very personal moment. Our love and commitment to one another, equal to that of other couples, could be celebrated with a wedding.

Fast-forward a few days and we’re in limbo, not because our feelings for one another have changed, but because reality has set in.

Speaking to a number of others in the community who are exploring the possibility of marriage, I’m hearing people taking a similar “wait and see” approach.

“We’re sort of living in interim times,” Dr. Margaret Cowden told me. She’s director of the Narrow River Singers and she and her partner, Chris, have been together 15 years. They’re not yet sure whether they’ll take that walk down the aisle. Like us, they’re exploring the legal and financial ramifications of marrying.

“I’m certainly proud to live in a state that fully recognizes alternative families,” she said. “We’ve lived so long emotionally, spiritually, legally and financially” as a married couple. They’ve already taken the necessary steps to protect one another’s interests. Now they’re weighing the advantages and possible disadvantages of marriage.

Whether or not they take the step, Dr. Cowden, an ordained minister, just may find herself called upon to officiate at the weddings of other gay couples.

“I just broke down crying,” David Kilmnick, CEO of Long Island Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender organization, said about Friday night’s vote. He and his partner of 10 years are looking forward to tying the knot, but they’re not rushing. They are taking their time to plan the wedding they want.

“It’s really an empowering feeling that one is equal to their neighbors,” he said. At the same time, he’s concerned there could be backlash from those who don’t embrace marriage equality.

Looking ahead, Mr. Kilmnick wants to remind gay couples who are tempted to rush to the altar that it’s not just about rights and benefits, it’s also about responsibilities.

For Edwin Blesch and his partner, Tim, the issue is somewhat different. The two were married in South Africa, Tim’s home country. But they’re fighting to have their relationship recognized by the federal government to put an end to the shuttle between the two countries Tim’s visa status requires. Tim has a six-month visitor’s visa, which means they have to leave the country twice a year.

If Tim had married an American woman, he would have permanent residency status, but that’s denied him because he’s married to an American man.

Nonetheless, Mr. Blesch pronounced himself thrilled by Friday night’s vote and what he believes it will mean for other gay couples he knows.

“We are delighted for our friends, but until the Defense of Marriage Act is defeated, it doesn’t help our situation,” he said. That federal law enacted in 1996 provides that only marriages between one man and one woman can be sanctioned. DOMA remains a target of activists seeking marriage equality.

One privilege gay married couples will be able to enjoy in New York State as a result of the vote is eligibility to apply for a joint lobstering license, Mr. Blesch joked.

“We’re not there yet,” he said.

So what does it all mean?

Emotionally, it’s still thrilling and for many, which may be reason enough to marry. But for all of us, true equality lies in gaining the same federal rights our heterosexual counterparts enjoy.

It doesn’t make us any less grateful to Governor Andrew Cuomo for leading the effort to pass the Marriage Equality Act. Nor are we any less grateful to many Assembly members and senators who struggled with their consciences and finally cast courageous votes to allow us to marry.

But it also doesn’t change the reality that, in the eyes of the federal government, we are still separate and that has never been equal.

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Julie Lane is a Times/Review staff writer. She can be reached at 298-3200 ex. 245.