Beth Troy accompanies her young son to school each morning, where he recites the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I stand in school with our son and he is saying ‘with Liberty and Justice for all,’ not ‘with Liberty and Justice for a select group of chosen people’,” Troy said on Monday. “We are all born on this earth equal. Equality is not for a certain race, a certain religion or a certain sexual orientation.”
For Troy and her family, which includes her female partner of more than 11 years and their son, the State of New York has yet to truly live up to the words “with Liberty and Justice for all.” But Last Tuesday, the state assembly brought Troy’s family one step closer to the equality she seeks by voting in favor of passing a marriage equality bill. If signed into law, the bill would amend the Domestic Relations Law to give same sex couples the right to legally marry in New York.
The bill was co-sponsored by assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor and passed 89 to 52. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Maine have already legalized same-sex marriage and New Hampshire Governor John Lynch is expected to sign similar legislation into law any day now.Â
Similar to 2007, when the assembly passed the same bill without the support of Thiele, a Republican, it appears the marriage equality act will have a much more difficult time passing the senate, which is required before a willing Governor David Paterson can sign it into law. On Friday, Thiele said he was unsure whether the senate would even bring the bill to a vote, but he hoped the people of New York would have the opportunity to learn where their state senators stood on the issue.
Senator Ken LaValle, who represents the East End, did not return calls seeking comment on the issue.
For many Sag Harbor residents, the passage of the marriage equality bill not only gives them the right to marry in their home state, but also affords them the same legal and civil rights as married heterosexual couples. According to Greg Ferraris, a certified public accountant and Sag Harbor’s mayor, the financial injustice of denying same-sex couples the right to marry is staggering. Ferraris said under state and federal tax codes, one has to be married to file a joint tax return, which can be financially advantageous.
“But more specifically, in tax code, health insurance benefits which a spouse receives are non-taxable, but there are tax implications for domestic partners,” said Ferraris. “A real estate transfer between a husband and a wife is also tax-exempt, but transfer for same-sex couples is taxable.”
Same-sex couples are also not afforded spousal benefits under Social Security, said Ferraris, which can be especially costly when a family loses a high-wage earner.
“The big one is estate taxes,” said Ferraris. “Marital transfer of an estate is automatic, but in a same-sex couple, one transfer to another is a taxable event and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Other factors include health insurance. Same-sex couples and their children are often denied access to family plans said Ferraris.
“There are so many issues at stake,” he said. “It just goes on and on and on.”
For Thiele, this was one of many reasons why he changed his tune on the marriage equality bill and decided to co-sponsor it.
“My first ‘no’ vote was not consistent with my record when it comes to equality issues or issues with sexual orientation,” said Thiele on Friday. “The vote just never felt right.”
Thiele said he also wanted to wait and see if civil unions, which were legalized in New Jersey in 2008, would afford same-sex couples the same rights as marriage, but ultimately found they did not. In New Jersey, civil unions were a separate designation from marriage and were termed “a failure” by Thiele.
“Through my job and in my life I have made hundreds of friends and professional acquaintances who were affected by this and I could not explain to them why I decided to vote ‘no,’” Thiele said. “Ken [Dorph] and Stuart [Lowrie] are at the top of that list. I could not look at them and say they should not be entitled to the same rights.”
Dorph and Lowrie, Sag Harbor residents, have been in a committed relationship for decades. The couple married in Vancouver in 2004. Dorph said it was not just a desire to be joined in matrimony that prompted their decision, but an understanding that in the event of a medical emergency their rights could be jeopardized if they were not legally wed. During their first trip to the Hamptons, a friend drowned at a nearby beach and they witnessed the inequities of same-sex couples first hand. Dorph noted the deceased man’s partner of 15 years was not considered next of kin by the authorities. The man’s father had to come to New York to release the body.
“They were treated like they were roommates,” said Dorph. “These are the horror stories … and when you realize it can happen to you personally, it is terrifying – that the person you care most about could be taken away from you and there is nothing you can do.”
Like Dorph and Lowrie, Troy and her partner have been together for over a decade and have a child together. Troy and her partner are registered domestic partners, but Troy noted the designation has not been enough to protect them. In addition to ensuring their rights are spelled out in the event of a medical emergency, Troy’s partner legally adopted her son, spending thousands in legal fees to make it happen.
“Eleven years ago I met the love of my life and we chose to have a family,” she said. “We would love to be married in New York, but if not we will go somewhere else, because this is an important step to take. It is important for our son.”
Author T.J. Parsell and therapist Tom Wasik, former Sag Harbor residents who now live in East Hampton, have been together for 17 years and raised an adopted daughter together.
“What is really important about extending marriage to all partners is it legitimizes all kinds of families,” said Wasik, noting that his family had to contend with enormous bias in attempting to adopt their daughter, who was in foster kinship care. As a same-sex couple, they were initially rejected.
“It took a lot of work to get someone to work with us. Many people are afraid of what they don’t know,” said Wasik who added that the Sag Harbor community and school district embraced his family, offering support without bias.
“We were probably one of the earliest families and they were bar none lovely and accommodating and did everything to help us out,” said Wasik. “We had a lot of support. People see we are a loving family, and we have the same issues as any other family.”
Sag Harbor’s Cee Scott Brown and his partner John Bjornen have been together for eight years and though they have created irrevocable trusts to ensure they are legally protected, they still see benefits to marriage.Â
“We would definitely marry because of all of the equality issues,” said Brown. “It is not what I need for my relationship, but I see a lot of people are fed up with all the bigotry.”
Jennifer Brooke and Bea Alda met as parents and merged their families five years ago. They married in Montreal in 2006, but said despite it being a joyous event shared with friends and family, wished they were able to have their moment in New York.Â
“It means we’re closer to equal rights everyone in this country should have,” said Brooke of the marriage equality bill. “For our kids it will mean less discord between what they know to be normal in their own lives and what the world sees as normal. It means our grandkids, who won’t be born for many years, will hopefully know all families are equal and will be looked upon that way under the law.”
She added that the issue cannot be seen as solely financial, but ultimately a denial of all civil rights.
“We are American, law-abiding, tax-paying, voting citizens,” she said. “We take our kids to school and Little League and community events just like every other local family. For our family to be denied any rights under the law is simply a denial of civil rights.”
Like Dorph, who will be meeting with senator LaValle next week, Alda and Brooke have been watching the politics of this bill and Alda expressed disappointment that New York, of all states, had yet to enact gay marriage.
“As New Yorkers, we consider ourselves a progressive state in the nation, but in truth, we are neither progressive nor egalitarian for denying thousands of families their civil rights,” she said. “It is simply unacceptable to deny people civil rights based on what does or doesn’t make one comfortable.”
“For instance,” added Brooke. “Right wingers may not make me comfortable, but I would never deem it my option to vote on their right to marry.”
Above: Tom Wasik and TJ Parsell have said Â they have experienced bias.