MAYOR BLOOMBERG DELIVERS MAJOR ADDRESS ON URGENT NEED FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY
The following are Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s remarks as prepared for delivery at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Please check against delivery.
I want to thank Rachel and our hosts here at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
I think it’s fair to say that no institute of higher learning has had a more profound impact on the course of American history than Cooper Union. By opening the doors of its Great Hall to Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and so many other pioneering leaders, and by hosting the founding of the NAACP, Cooper Union has helped push American freedom ever higher, and ever wider.
Today, we gather in this innovative and striking new academic building – a symbol of how Cooper Union has always looked forward and always championed progress. We gather – in the tradition of those who came before us – to discuss a momentous question before our nation and our great State of New York: Should government permit men and women of the same sex to marry?
It is a question that cuts to the core of who we are as a country – and as a city. It is a question that deserves to be answered here in New York – which was the birthplace of the gay rights movement, more than 40 years ago. And it is a question that requires us to step back from the platitudes and partisanship of the everyday political debate and consider the principles that must lead us forward.
The principles that have guided our nation since its founding – freedom, liberty, equality – are the principles that have animated generations of Americans to expand opportunity to an ever wider circle of our citizenry. At our founding, African-Americans were held in bondage. Catholics in New York could not hold office. Those without property could not vote. Women could not vote or hold office. And homosexuality was, in some places, a crime punishable by death.
One by one, over many long years, the legal prohibitions to freedom and equality were overcome: Some on the battlefield, some at the State House and some in the courthouse. Throughout our history, each and every generation has expanded upon the freedoms won by their parents and grandparents. Each and every generation has removed some barrier to full participation in the American dream. Each and every generation has helped our country take another step on the road to a more perfect union for all our citizens. That is the arc of American history. That is the march of freedom. That is the journey that we must never stop traveling. And that is the reason we are here today.
The next great barrier standing before our generation is the prohibition on marriage for same-sex couples. The question is: Why now? And why New York? I believe both answers start at the Stonewall Inn. When the Village erupted in protest 42 years ago next month, New York – and every other state in the union, save one – still had laws on the books that made same-sex relationships a crime. A couple could go to prison for years, just for being intimate in the privacy of their own home. For men and women of that era, an era many of us remember well, being in a gay relationship meant living in fear:
Fear of police harassment.
Fear of public humiliation
Fear of workplace discrimination.
Fear of physical violence.
Today, in some places, those fears still linger. But as a nation, we have come a long way since Stonewall. Today, two women in a committed relationship – who years ago would have hidden their relationship from family and friends – will instead take part in a wedding ceremony in front of their family and friends. Today, two men who are long-time partners – who years ago would never even have entertained the idea – will adopt a child and begin a family.
Both events are possible because thousands of courageous individuals risked everything to come out and speak out. And because they did – because they organized and protested, because they poured their hearts out to friends and family and neighbors, because they stood up for their rights and marched for equality and ran for office – laws banning same-sex relationships have been struck down by the Supreme Court. More than 20 states have adopted laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. And beginning this year, patriotic men and women will be able to enlist in the U.S. military without having to hide their identity.
We owe all of those pioneers a deep debt of gratitude. And although the work is far from over, there is no doubt that we have passed the tipping point.
Today, a majority of Americans support marriage equality – and young people increasingly view marriage equality in much the same way as young people in the 1960s viewed civil rights. Eventually, as happened with civil rights for African-Americans, they will be a majority of voters. And they will pass laws that reflect their values and elect presidents who personify them.
It is not a matter of if – but when.
And the question for every New York State lawmaker is: Do you want to be remembered as a leader on civil rights? Or an obstructionist? On matters of freedom and equality, history has not remembered obstructionists kindly.
Not on abolition.
Not on women’s suffrage.
Not on workers’ rights.
Not on civil rights.
And it will be no different on marriage rights.
So the question really is: So, why now? Because this is our time to stand up for equality. This is our time to conquer the next frontier of freedom. This is our time to be as bold and brave as the pioneers who came before us. And this is our time to lead the American journey forward.
It’s fitting that the gay rights movement began in our City, because New Yorkers have always been at the forefront of movements to expand American freedoms – and guarantee American liberties. Long before our founding fathers wisely decided to separate church from state, leading citizens of our City petitioned their colonial rulers for religious freedom. Long before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, many New Yorkers – including the founder of this college, Peter Cooper – crusaded against slavery. Long before the nation adopted the 19th Amendment, New Yorkers helped lead the movement for women’s suffrage. And long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, New Yorkers played a pivotal role in advancing a color-blind society.
So why should New York now lead on marriage equality? Because we have always led the charge for freedom – and we have always led by example. No place in the world is more committed to freedom of expression – religious, artistic, political, social, personal – than New York City. And no place in the world is more welcoming of all people, no matter what their ethnicity or orientation.
That has always been what sets us apart. In our city, there is no shame in being true to yourself. There is only pride. We take you as you are – and we let you be who you wish to be. That is the essence of New York City!
That is what makes us a safe haven for people of every background and orientation… and a magnet for talented and creative people. It’s the reason why we are the economic engine for the country and the greatest city in the world.
But it’s up to us to keep it that way. As other states recognize the rights of same-sex couples to marry, we cannot stand by and watch. To do so would be to betray our civic values and history – and it would harm our competitive edge in the global economy. This is an issue of democratic principles – but make no mistake, it carries economic consequences.
We are the freest city in the freest country in the world – but freedom is not frozen in time. And if we are to remain the freest city, with the most dynamic and innovative economy, we must lead on this issue – just as we have on so many other matters of fundamental civil rights.
In talking to State legislators who do not yet support marriage equality, I can sense that many of them are searching their souls for answers – and they are torn. Like all of us, they have friends and family and colleagues who are gay and lesbian. They know gay and lesbian couples who are deeply in love with each other – many of whom are loving and devoted parents, too. They know those couples yearn to be seen and treated as equal to all other couples. And they often hear from their own families – especially their children – that this is a civil rights issue. I hope they listen to their kids carefully and make them proud with their foresight and courage.
Now, I understand the desire by some to seek guidance from their religious teachings. But this is not a religious issue. It is a civil issue. And that is why, under the bill proposed in Albany, no church or synagogue or mosque would be required to perform or sanction a same-sex wedding – as is the case in every state that has legalized marriage equality.
Some faith communities would perform them; others would not. That is their right. I have enormous respect for religious leaders on both sides of the issue, but government has no business taking sides in these debates – none!
As private individuals, we may be part of a faith community that forbids divorce or birth control or alcohol. But as public citizens, we do not impose those prohibitions on society. We may place our personal faith in the Torah, or the New Testament, or the Koran, or anything else. But as a civil society, we place our public faith in the U.S. Constitution: the principles and protections that define it, and the values that have guided its evolution. And as elected officials, our responsibility is not to any one creed or congregation, but to all citizens.
It is my hope that members of the State Senate majority will recognize that supporting marriage equality is not only consistent with our civic principles – it is consistent with conservative principles. Conservatives believe that government should not intrude into people’s personal lives – and it’s just none of government’s business who you love!
Conservatives also believe that government should not stand in the way of free markets and private associations – including contracts between consenting parties. And that’s exactly what marriage is: a contract, a legal bond, between two adults who vow to support one another, in sickness and in health.
There is no State interest in denying one class of couples a right to that contract. Just the opposite, in fact. Marriage has always been a force for stability in families and communities – because it fosters responsibility. That’s why conservatives promote marriage – and that’s why marriage equality would be healthy for society, healthy for couples and healthy for children.
Right now, sadly, children of same-sex couples often ask their parents: ‘Why haven’t you gotten married like all our friends’ parents?’ That’s a heartbreaking question to answer.
And it’s an early expression of the profound principle that sets our country apart: that all people are created equal, with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is the American dream – but for gay and lesbian couples, it is still only that: A dream.
The plain reality is, if we are to recognize same-sex and opposite sex couples as equals, that equality must extend to obtaining civil marriage licenses. Now, some people ask: Why not just grant gay couples civil unions?
That is a fair and honest question. But the answer is simple and unavoidable: Long ago, the Supreme Court declared that ‘separate but equal’ opportunities are inherently unequal. It took the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 60 years after Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld disparate treatment of non-whites, to come to that conclusion.
But justice finally prevailed. It took the Supreme Court another 13 years to strike down laws barring inter-racial marriage and another 36 years after that to strike down laws criminalizing same-sex relationships. The march for equality and tolerance in America has sometimes been slow, but it has never stopped.
Since our nation’s earliest days, when the first Congress adopted the Bill of Rights, the Constitution’s protections of liberty have grown broader and stronger, and the law of the land has grown increasingly neutral on matters of race, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.
That inexorable progress is the genius of our constitutional system. In fact, we have had major social change without violence because the revolution we seek is contained within our founding documents. We have no king to overthrow – only our own ideals to live up to.
In the weeks ahead, I will continue doing everything I can to convince our state legislators to take the long view and consider their place in history – and consider the kind of world they want to leave their children.
Governor Cuomo and Governor Paterson both deserve great credit for advancing this issue in Albany, and I strongly believe that just as New Yorkers are discussing and debating it openly – so should both houses of the State Legislature.
That’s democracy. And the essence of democracy is a public debate and a public vote. New Yorkers have a right to know where their elected officials stand – and make no mistake about it, avoiding a vote is the same as a no vote on this historic issue – and New Yorkers deserve better.
We deserve a vote not next year, or after the 2012 elections, but in this legislative session.
There’s a reason I’m so passionate about this issue – and so determined to push for change. I see the pain the status quo causes – and I cannot defend it. When I meet a New Yorker who is gay, when I speak with friends and members of my staff who are gay, or when I look into the eyes of my niece, Rachel, I cannot tell them that their government is correct in denying them the right to marry. I cannot tell them that marriage is not for them. I cannot tell them that a civil union is good enough.
In our democracy, near equality is no equality. Government either treats everyone the same, or it doesn’t. And right now, it doesn’t.
Tonight, two New Yorkers who are in a committed relationship will come home, cook dinner, help their kids with their homework and turn in for the night. They want desperately to be married – not for the piece of paper they will get. Not for the ceremony or the reception or the wedding cake. But for the recognition that the lifelong commitment they have made to each other is not less than anyone else’s and not second-class in any way. And they want it not just for themselves – but for their children. They want their children to know that their family is as healthy and legitimate as all other families.
That desire for equal standing in society is extraordinarily powerful and it has led to extraordinary advances in American freedom.
It has never been defeated.
It cannot be defeated.
And on marriage equality, it will not be defeated.
There is no retreating to a past that has disappeared. There is no holding back a wave that has crested. And there is no denying a freedom that belongs to us all.
The time has come for us to fulfill the dreams that exploded onto Sheridan Square 42 years ago: to allow thousands of men and women to become full members of the American family, and to take the next step on the inspired journey our founding fathers first began.
Together, we can work across the aisle to pass a bill allowing all New Yorkers to walk down the aisle and lead our state and country toward a more perfect union. Thank you.
- May 27 Fri 2011 19:43