State Senator George Onorato: A Party of No Just As I Now Say Yes

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Onorato

As readers of this website were made aware several weeks ago, one of the stumbling blocks to marriage equality in the Empire State is an 80-year-old politician named George Onorato. He happens to be my representative in the New York State Senate, and unless you’ve been communing under a rock with a passel of apolitical snakes of late, the New York State Senate has proven itself to superbly excel as a dysfunctional legislative body. (For the latest, click here. Actually, for something even more recent, click here. Espada gets two votes?)

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One of the most important bills on the state legislative docket may or may not come to a vote during what remains of the current session — partly due, of course, to the interparty shenanegans in the State Senate, which has managed to make the Illinois governor’s office look like the arrival desk at the Pearly Gates. The bill provides marriage equality for all citizens, whether same-gender or, to quote Miss California, “opposite” gender. For those of you who perceive New York as a reflexively liberal state, permit me to enlighten you: It’s not. It may not be Kansas, Arkansas or Utah, but in these disorienting times, it turns out the soon-to-be-former governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, isn’t as archconservative as we’d have assumed a governor of Utah would be. Even in deep-red Utah, Huntsman supports civil unions. (And in a surprise, a formerly super-important New York Republican now does, too.) Yet some New York politicans are mired in a kind of coy marriage-equality malaise.

That is to say: In line with the gaping philosophical chasm that continually afflicts our fine nation and democracy, the conservative streak in New York is typically Republican-owned and branded. In terms of marriage equality legislation, a small, and (more disturbing) small-minded, borderline-bigoted pack of Democrats in the State Senate are standing, arms crossed, on the wrong side of history as it pertains to the premier civil-rights cause of our time. And, I suspect, of the decade to come. If marriage equality comes to a vote, their vote will be no.

Before now, I have not spent copious time disclosing my personal views on marriage equality. (I happen to admire, by the way, how such a nicely coined phrase has banished to secondary status “same-sex marriage” as the signal term in our language, “same-sex marriage” being, I guess, a more threatening, alienating term.) When same-sex marriage as an issue began to arise during the early years of this otherwise regrettable decade, I was not in favor of it. This I admit. It wasn’t so much not being in favor of it, I should add, and more fearing how it might ignite a civil war. At the time, I consciously considered the possibility that opposing same-sex marriage was a symptom of self-loathing, self-hatred. But that, I concluded, wasn’t at all the issue. I realized that I came of age in an era in which the very idea of marrying someone of the same gender was fundamentally off the radar. Unthought of, unheard of, unarticulated in the media or society, marriage was marriage — a straight institution at its very core. Robbed of access to marriage, robbed of other institutions of social coupling, I also realized that gay men and women had forged their own vocabularies, distinct and separate modes of marriage-esque situations. Think about it this way: If you talk to gay men of, say, 50 and up, notice that they will use a phrase like “lover” to describe their other half. Talk to slightly younger gay men (I’m 41) and they will use a term “boyfriend” or “partner” or, indeed, “other half.” (As for the early 1990s vogue for the term “life partner,” it remains my personal favorite for the Wow-Isn’t-That-Too-Precious Award.)

All of these, of course, are inept, misleading descriptors: “lover” implies sex over love and commitment; “boyfriend” implies being pinned in high school; “partner” implies the investment banker whose recklessness ruined your 401(k).

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Still, as the issue came to fore the appeal of marriage equality remained distant, even limited; since it never occurred to me that it might be available to me, I didn’t give it a second thought. After all, I’m not destined to be a Pope or a U.S. president or, I suppose, a CEO, either. And, by the way, I have long questioned the very institution of marriage itself. Just look at what it too often represents in the heterosexual world: drama, melodrama, commerce, making Mom and Dad happy, conforming and bending to society’s will. Sure, this is a ruthless, cynical way to think about it, and I have known many people, gay and straight, who have married for love and whose engagement experience was about more than china patterns, temper tantrums and droning choruses of “I want.” Still, I perceived marriage as I perceived it. I had also one other thought: Why on earth would LGBT people, historically disenfranchised from society in any event, want to partake in a ritual of heterosexual society thousands of years old? Allow us create our own rituals, I thought. Allow the state do what it wants with straight people. Allow them have it. I’m not one of them. I’m not straight. I’m no less a citizen, of course, but this is separation of church and state — this is, by golly, separation of State and state. Did I sound self-segregating? Did I horrify some people? I’m sure I did at the time.

In 2004 and 2005, several of my work colleagues rushed to Massachusetts and married. Upon returning, they were pointed in their questions: When would my partner and I rush to Massachusetts and marry? Ken and I were together two years at that point: Had we ever even talked about it? In response, I made the mistake of actually sharing my view of same-sex marriage, using my let-them-keep-their-rituals argument, and the explosion was tremendous. Plus, I was truly offended by the raised voices, the scolding, the finger wagging that ensued, the pedantic instruction on what my my responsibilities must be as a gay man. Setting aside the fact that the topic of same-sex marriage didn’t belong in an office setting of the kind in which I worked, I was furious: it’s no one’s business why I may or may not marry. This was not a conversation about what I believe people should and must have the right to do. This was a conversation about what is or is not right for me and Ken. And truthfully, I flinch when I feel anything smacking of peer pressure. The year 1986 was when high school ended for me, when I began to leave such silliness behind.

The years passed, my relationship deepened, life happened. There have been tragedies and triumphs. Low points and high points and considerably more uncertainty than the hardline dramatist in me would normally allow. And now it’s the end of the decade, and three months ago Ken and Iwatched our closest friends marry in Massachusetts. Through all those years, such a sight as that was unthinkable to me, and so I never thought it. But here I was, understanding the economic, legal and moral arguments for marriage equality and, to my shock, failing to see how our elected leaders could not be persuaded by them. Apex: this 80-year-old State Senator of mine, George Onorato, begins to hurl his religious beliefs at the issue, stating in the press that his district, the 12th, is highly conservative. Yes, the 12th is the largest, or one of the largest, Greek-American communities in the nation; the Greek Orthodox Church is as openly hostile toward homosexuality as the Catholic Church. Still, to call Astoria conservative, with its huge influx of artists and young people, is to willfully spit in reality’s face. Astoria is the new Brooklyn. The gays have moved in.

I soon learned that a determined group of civic leaders — who I’m just beginning to know — have driven a remarkable campaign to force Onorato to face the issue either way. A pro-marriage-equality rally I attended at Athens Park drew 2,500 people.

Because I find it helpful to publish the text of the pending marriage-equality legislation, click here. If you prefer, this is the language from the first half of the bill:

Section 1. Legislative intent. Marriage is a fundamental human right.
Same-sex couples and their children should have the same access as
others to the protections, responsibilities, rights, obligations, and
benefits of civil marriage. Stable family relationships help build a
stronger society. For the welfare of the community and in fairness to
all New Yorkers, this act formally recognizes otherwise-valid marriages
without regard to whether the parties are of the same or different sex.
It is the intent of the legislature that the marriages of same-sex and
different-sex couples be treated equally in all respects under the law.
The omission from this act of changes to other provisions of law shall
not be construed as a legislative intent to preserve any legal
distinction between same-sex couples and different-sex couples with
respect to marriage. The legislature intends that all provisions of law
which utilize gender-specific terms in reference to the parties to a
marriage, or which in any other way may be inconsistent with this act,
be construed in a gender-neutral manner or in any way necessary to
effectuate the intent of this act.
S 2. The domestic relations law is amended by adding a new section
10-a to read as follows:
S 10-A. SEX OF PARTIES. 1. A MARRIAGE THAT IS OTHERWISE VALID SHALL BE
VALID REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THE PARTIES TO THE MARRIAGE ARE OF THE SAME
OR DIFFERENT SEX.

In mid-May, Senator Onorato met with a group of civic leaders, including religious leaders, all determined to attempt to change the man’s mind. Basically, they reported afterward, Onorato said he wouldn’t stand in the way of the bill if it came to a vote. Trouble is, Onorato deliberately, arrogantly parsed his words to make it seem as if he might consider changing his own vote. By the way, this video, below, will intrigue you. Even if you disagree with the idea of marriage equality, what kind of elected representative avoids constituents?

Now the various groups in this coalition, spearheaded by the Western Queens for Marriage Equality, are turning up the heat and putting Onorato’s feet to the fire, if you’ll pardon such dreary temperature cliches. Please read this press release below and the see photos below that. Protests continue everyday outside of Onorato’s office. Personally, I am not convinced the bill, which passed the Assembly and has the governor’s support, will come up for a vote. Even if it does, I see it as unlikely that it will pass this time around, now that the National Organization for Marriage threatens to primary any Republican who might vote yea. (Here is a formal statement from the group.) Then again, per this CBS story, Republicans are dangling the bill as bait so that Democrats can break the State Senate’s partisan logjam.

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It’s ironic to me that all of this is happening at precisely the moment when I have completed my journey on this issue. I think one of the reasons I’ve warmed to marriage equality is because I understand what made me so uncomfortable with it. I permitted myself to arrive at my own conclusions in my own time and own manner, to skip being subject to the tsunami of groupthink that washed over my former office, in favor of considering what marriage might mean to me personally. That moment of looking into another human’s eyes and pledging a bond, a sacrament. I do not expect an 80-year-old religious man to understand this. I do expect that from this coalition a group of new candidates will arise, candidates who may have also reached similar conclusions after a great deal of soul searching. Here’s Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi’s op-ed in the New York Times (excerpts):

When I ran in the Democratic primary for governor against Eliot Spitzer in 2006, I vocally supported civil unions for same-sex couples but did not endorse equal marriage. I understood the need to provide equal rights for gays and lesbians, but as a practicing Catholic, I also felt that the state should not infringe on religious institutions’ right to view marriage in accordance with their own traditions. I thought civil unions for same-sex couples would address my concerns regarding both equality and religious liberty.

I was wrong.

I have listened to many well-reasoned and well-intentioned arguments both for and against same-sex marriage. And as I talked to gays and lesbians and heard their stories of pain, discrimination and love, my platitudes about civil unions began to ring hollow. I have struggled to find the solution that best serves the common good.

…Under current New York State law, same-sex couples are deprived of access to the employment benefits, life and health insurance and inheritance laws that heterosexual couples have. If the state were to institute civil unions for same-sex couples, that discrimination would end, but we’d still be creating a separate and unequal system.

…Any change in the New York law can, and must, balance equality while making sure that religious institutions remain free to choose whether to marry same-sex couples. By following the example of Connecticut and Vermont, which included protections for religious institutions when they recently legalized same-sex marriage, we can ensure that churches are not forced to consecrate marriages they do not endorse. This will require a strong liberty clause allowing religious institutions to opt out of solemnizing same-sex marriage, which also applies to the provision of services and programs at religiously affiliated institutions.

…But most important, gays and lesbians have suffered too long from legal discrimination, social marginalization and even violence. They are entitled to clear recognition of their equal status as citizens of a country that is founded on the principle that we are all inherently worthy. By delivering a clear message that same-sex couples can no longer be treated as separate and unequal in New York, we will also reduce discrimination in everyday life. We will all be better for that.

These candidates will, should and must displace politicians like George Onorato, or force them to fight for their seats. I am worried that once the legislative session is over, that will be that — everyone, back to the dugout. Senator Onorato is vulnerable; I believe the community must force him, even post-session, to publicly, substantively debate this issue. Here is the press release I referred to earlier; below that are some action items; below that, photographs of the most recent meeting between the civic leaders and Onorato. His party of no goes on, sad to say, just as so many people in my own party have decided there is no question, there is no discussion: the answer must be yes.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Sen. Onorato wants all the rights for gay couples but not marriage!

Western Queens activists present Senator Onorato Thousands of Signatures Supporting Marriage Equality

Contact:
Brendan Fay of Western Queens for Marriage Equality (brendan@stpatsforall.com)
Jeremiah Frei-Pearson of Western Queens for Marriage Equality (Jeremiah@meny.us)

Brief Summary:
People of Western Queens again asked Senator Onorato to support marriage equality, and gave him a petition for marriage equality signed by thousands of his constituents. Senator Onorato publicly promised to call for a vote on marriage equality and to ask Senate leadership to bring the issue to a vote.

Date & Location:
Friday, June 12, 2009
Senator Onorato’s District Office Astoria, NY

Summary:
Members of Western Queens for Marriage Equality (WQFME) have been working hard to get Senator Onorato to listen to the will of his constituents and support marriage equality. We have organized a rally of 2,500 people; we have written hundreds of letters, made thousands of phone calls, and passed out thousands of flyers. We have protested outside of the Senator’s district office every day during the past week and we will continue to protest until the Senator announces that he unequivocally supports equality.

Three members of WQFME, Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, Kristen Plylar-Moore and Brendan Fay, met with Senator Onorato on late friday afternoon. Jeremiah Frei-Pearson presented a petition to Senator Onorato and said: “This petition is the voice of the people you represent. Thousands of your constituents have signed it and they are all asking you to support marriage equality. We ask you to vote for equal rights.”

Senator Onorato said he supported civil unions, but he could not support equal marriage. The Senator stated that his opposition to marriage equality was not motivated by religion because he was not deeply religious. He said he did want to discriminate, but his hesitance to support marriage equality came from his “gut.” Frei-Pearson, Fay and Plylar-Moore urged the Senator to reconsider. Senator Onorato publicly called for the Senate to have a vote on the issue and he promised that he would use his influence to urge the Senate leadership to bring the marriage equality bill to the floor for a vote.

Athena Onorato, the Senator’s wife, also talked with the members of WQFME. Holding up his own Canadian marriage certificate from 2003, Brendan Fay reminded the Senator and his wife that New York recognizes same sex marriage, but the state currently forces gay couples to leave the state to get married. “All we want is for New Yorkers to get married in New York. Our cause of civil marriage is about fairness and equal respect for our gay families, our share in the tradition of marriage as well as our common humanity of love.”

Mrs. Onorato told the group that gay New Yorkers could just travel to another state to get married. Kristen Plylar-Moore tearfully responded: “No we can’t.” Kristen explained that her girlfriend has a chronic medical condition which makes travel difficult. Straight New Yorkers don’t have to leave the state to get married, why should gay New Yorkers face this burden?

WQFME is pleased that the Senator committed to working to bring the marriage equality bill to the floor to a vote. We hope that Senator Onorato will listen to the people he represents and ultimately become a full supporter of marriage equality.

If you want to get involved, per WQFME’s website, you can:

1. Join daily rallies every weekday from 5:00pm to 8:00pm outside Onorato’s office (28-11 Astoria Blvd, in Astoria) until we get marriage equality or until the end of the legislative session.

2. Call Senator Onorato’s office at 518-455-3486. Request a meeting with him to urge his support of the Marriage Equality bill.

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3. Sign this petition if you have not already done so.

4. Join the WQFME group on Facebook.

5. Contact and encourage your friends and family to perform the actions listed above.

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Here are the photos:

Onorato in Office 1 Onorato in Office 2 Onorato in Office 3 Onorato in Office 4
Photos by Nicholas Fevelo

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Onorato in Office 5
Photo by Brandon Brock