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Marriage equality: Its time has come

George Gresham President | , 1199 Seiu | 8/31/2011, 4:38 p.m.
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

Come July 24, thousands of New Yorkers can begin enjoying the rights that so many of us take for granted. I'm proud that members and leaders of 1199SEIU were strong supporters of the law that will make that possible.

With the passage of New York's Marriage Equality Law, our state will become the sixth and largest in the nation to permit same-sex unions. It joins Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, plus Washington, D.C., Canada to our north, Mexico to our south and even the former apartheid state of South Africa in granting same-sex marriages.

After the passage of the legislation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo-whose leadership was key to the victory-declared that New York had resumed its role as a "beacon for social justice." Cuomo and the four Republican senators who voted for the bill, to their credit, recognized the rapidly changing climate on this issue. According to a 2004 Quinnipiac poll, 37 percent of the state's residents supported allowing same-sex couples to wed. This year's poll found that support at 58 percent.

I saw the willingness of people to reassess their views during recent discussions among the leadership of our union. For so many of us, that evolution was sparked by interactions with gay and lesbian relatives and friends.

These 1199ers sincerely believe that sexual orientation should not disqualify anyone from the right to share a loving relationship that is legally recognized and confers all the rights and privileges granted to heterosexual married couples, including multiple federal and state rights, among them property ownership, health insurance, pension benefits, hospital visitation, child custody and inheritance rights.

I view marriage equality through the lens of civil rights, and I firmly believe that the New York law represents a significant landmark on our nation's civil rights journey. Our civil rights laws, for which many of our great leaders gave their lives, include protection from discrimination based on gender, race, religion, national origin, disability, age and, yes, sexual orientation or sexual identity.

When I was born in Virginia, segregation was both the practice and the law. It was illegal for African-Americans and whites to marry. That did not change until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and African-American women who had been convicted for violating anti-miscegenation laws by marrying in Washington, D.C., and returning to live in Virginia.

Had the parents of President Barack Obama been living in the South at the time of the president's birth, they, too, could have been convicted and imprisoned.

Unfortunately, some of our civil rights leaders and activists reject the connection between mixed marriage and gay marriage. They resent what they term the misappropriation of our movement. I believe the opposite is true. I'm proud that seekers of justice and equality find inspiration and guidance in our Civil Rights Movement. My chest swells when I hear activists from far corners of the globe singing our anthem, "We Shall Overcome."

I also tell my friends in the religious community that our nation is best served by the separation of church and state. The New York State Marriage Equality Law specifically exempts religious organizations and clergy from having to perform same-sex marriages. Many same-sex couples will marry in houses of worship because many denominations support marriage equality. And those numbers are increasing apace with the changing sentiment.

Some day, marriage equality will be the law of the land. I can't say when, but I do believe the words of our late soul music pioneer Sam Cooke: "A Change is Gonna Come."