Story at a glance
- This year marks the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Marriage Equality Act in New York.
- The act was sponsored by the first openly gay New York assemblymember, Daniel O’Donnell.
- O’Donnell shares the story of the pivotal act’s passage with Changing America, and talks about his focus now on transgender rights.
In 2004, when New York Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell (D) was asked to lead the charge on New York’s quest to legalize same-sex marriage, he wasn’t sure if he was the right guy for the job.
“That night I went out to dinner with my now-husband at Symposium Restaurant on 113th Street,” says O’Donnell. “I asked what he thought about it and he said he can’t get married! I asked why and he told me it’s because I hadn’t asked yet. So, I asked him, and he said yes.”
The road to marriage equality was not a smooth or linear one, though. O’Donnell became a plaintiff in the state’s marriage lawsuit, and lost the case. Fast forward three years to 2007 and Eliot Spitzer was elected as governor — finally a lawmaker who promised to be in favor of marriage equality. The odds were still stacked against them, though, as O’Donnell tells us that at the time only 24 members of the assembly were in favor of passing the right to same-sex marriage.
“So, Deborah [Glick] and I had to go out and get 76 votes to pass the bill in the assembly, and we were on a mission,” says O’Donnell. “Every single member was talked to by one of us. I had weekly communication strategies where I sent a letter to all of my colleagues that always started the same way: with me saying, ‘[my fiance] John and I thank you for taking the time to consider this.’ We brought political arguments, legal arguments, religious arguments for equality — whatever I could come up with.”
“In June of 2011, just two months after it was introduced, it was passed by the first time with 85 votes. That is unheard of in Albany, and I was very proud when I did that. Very proud of that.”
One year later O’Donnell was finally able to marry his husband, in a ceremony attended not only by friends and family but those who voted to legalize their ability to officiate their union. After its passage, New York became the largest state in the nation to permit same-sex marriages, helping to pave the way for marriage equality nationwide. Now, New York celebrates the ten-year anniversary of the state’s Marriage Equality Act.
Pushing for trans and nonbinary rights
The Marriage Equality Act represented a turning point in policy, and state legislators have continued to push for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community since, such as in 2012 when the Dignity for All Students Act was passed — the first law in New York to explicitly recognize transgender students.
O’Donnell says that transgender rights is one of his life pursuits, and that there is still much work to be done.
“When marriage equality was passed, I knew there would be a backlash. I didn’t know the backlash would be directed at trans people, or involve bathrooms. So, there’s work to be done. Last year, we passed a bill that said if a bathroom only has one toilet, anyone is allowed to use it, to prevent people from being threatened or beaten up for using the wrong bathroom,” he said.
As the legislative session winds down in Albany during Pride Month, the assemblymember is pushing for the passage of the Gender Recognition Act, which would allow for an “x” designation on driver’s licenses. The act would also help waive an outdated rule requiring people to publish a notification in a newspaper when they change their name in New York state. The bill passed the State Senate’s Codes Committee in March.
“We are supposed to be free, and we’re all living in America where we are protected by a constitution. Nowhere does it say that these rights don’t apply to one group of people.”
For an openly gay man who has worked in politics for more than twenty years, O’Donnell is also encouraged by the shifts he’s seen over the years — for one, people embracing their true selves at a much younger age.
“There was no bringing your boyfriend to prom when I was growing up,” he says. On the other side of the token, though, he says this change should lead to more progressive ways of protecting kids in the education system, which is where activists and allies can lend their voices this Pride Month and beyond.
“I would say go to your local school board and find out what they’re doing to protect trans kids,” O’Donnell says.
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