Friday, May 30, 2008
Uncle Stanley and Uncle Ronald
The New York Times
May 30, 2008
How Governor Set His Stance on Gay Rights
By JEREMY W. PETERS and DANNY HAKIM
When David A. Paterson was growing up and his parents would go out of town, he and his little brother would stay in Harlem with family friends they called Uncle Stanley and Uncle Ronald.
Uncle Stanley and Uncle Ronald, he said, were a gay couple, though in the 1960s few people described them that way. They helped young David with his spelling, and read to him and played cards with him.
“Apparently, my parents never thought we were in any danger,” the governor recalled on Thursday in an interview. “I was raised in a culture that understood the different ways that people conduct their lives. And I feel very proud of it.”
Mr. Paterson, who two months ago was unexpectedly elevated to be governor of New York, has accepted gay men and lesbians since early in life. From his first run for office, in 1985, he reached out to gays and lesbians, and in 1994, long before gay rights groups were broadly pushing for it, he said he supported same-sex marriage.
As he rose in politics, he became a go-between in the occasionally strained relationship between gay and black residents in his district and beyond, using his easygoing manner to broker disagreements and soothe hurt feelings.
On Thursday, the governor, who is still largely unknown to many New Yorkers, appealed to them to recognize what he called the basic common sense of allowing gay men and lesbians married elsewhere to gain the same rights here as heterosexual couples.
In doing so, he is stepping to the forefront of an issue that has often tripped up his party nationally, and he is going further than either of the two Democratic presidential candidates have been willing to do.
“People who live together for a long time would like to be married — as far as I’m concerned, I think it’s beautiful,” he said in a news conference called to discuss his directive to state agencies to revise their regulations to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, like California.
“I think it’s fine, regardless of the tenets of religion or the beliefs of some,” he added. “It’s something that the government should allow for people. It’s maybe misunderstood in this generation.”
But already on Thursday, there were signs of a backlash against his decision, with some conservative groups mulling whether to mount a legal challenge to the directive. Some Republican legislators said that Mr. Paterson is wading into an issue that should be settled by the Legislature, and likened it to the ill-fated attempt by his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants without seeking legislative support.
“It’s outrageous that the governor did what he did,” said Michael Long, chairman of the state’s Conservative Party. “He’s for same-sex marriage, that’s fine. I have no problem with that. To do this in the dark of night, through the back door, to begin the process of destroying the sanctity of marriage, is really wrong.”
It was shortly after Mr. Paterson was sworn in, on March 17, that his legal counsel, David Nocenti, approached him to discuss a February appellate court ruling in Rochester. In that case, the court said that because of New York’s longstanding practice of recognizing marriages from other jurisdictions, a community college in Monroe County must provide health benefits to the wife of a woman who was married in Canada.
Mr. Nocenti recommended that Mr. Paterson order all state agencies to bring their policies in line with that decision.
Mr. Paterson quickly agreed to do so, not only because the state risked legal exposure if it did not, but also because such a directive would be a strong statement of principle about an issue he cares about deeply. He met with his inner circle, and there was no dissent.
On May 14, Mr. Nocenti’s memo went out to the agencies. The governor’s plan called for not publicizing the directive until after June 30, when the agencies were asked to report back to Mr. Nocenti with the revisions necessary to comply with the court ruling. Once the governor approved those changes, he planned to announce them publicly. But Mr. Nocenti’s memo was reported on Wednesday night by The New York Times, and the governor described its contents at a dinner with gay advocates on May 17.
In the interview, Mr. Paterson said he believes deeply that gay men and lesbians today face the same kind of civil rights battle that black Americans faced. He acknowledged that this position put him at odds with some black leaders, who bristle at such comparisons.
“In many respects, people in our society, we only recognize our own struggles,” Mr. Paterson said. “I’ve wanted to be someone in the African-American community who recognizes the new civil rights struggle that is being undertaken by gay and lesbian and transgendered people.”
When Mr. Paterson became governor, gay activists cheered, saying they would have an ally in Albany even more committed than Mr. Spitzer. The Web site of The Advocate, a gay magazine, ran a story headlined, “Could Spitzer’s woes have a silver lining?” The story called Mr. Paterson “the best-case scenario for gays and lesbians in the state.”
Mr. Paterson introduced the State Senate’s first hate crimes bill in the 1980s and refused to support a compromise that did not include gay men and lesbians. When the Senate ultimately agreed to pass a hate crimes bill in 2000, it marked the first time the phrase “sexual orientation” appeared in New York State laws.
Mr. Paterson, then a senator, said: “Now I can die in peace,” adding, “If nothing else ever happens here, I feel that I can point to a contribution that I made.”
During his years as minority leader of the Senate, from 2002 to 2006, his warm relations with the majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican, helped pave the way for laws extending civil rights protections to gay men and lesbians, and coincided with a softening of Mr. Bruno’s views on gay rights.
“From the get-go, when I first introduced marriage, which was in, like, 2001, he put his name down right away as a sponsor,” said Senator Tom Duane, a Manhattan Democrat and the only openly gay member of the Senate. “The second I asked him if he wanted to be a sponsor, he said yes. When he was minority leader, he also fought for funding for groups and he’s been great on H.I.V./AIDS issues, as well. He has been 100 percent behind us.”
Some lawmakers said they particularly admired Mr. Paterson’s position on gay marriage because it would have been easy for him to let the issue rest once he became governor.
“I just think it shows the steel in his spine,” said Assemblyman Micah Z. Kellner, a Democrat who represents the Upper East Side. “He knows he is now the governor of all people in New York State, gay and straight.”
Mr. Paterson said he does not see his support for gay marriage as an issue of political fortitude, but rather something more human and almost reflexive.
“All the time when I’d hear Uncle Stanley and Uncle Ronald and my parents talk, they were talking about the civil rights struggle,” Mr. Paterson said. “In those days, I knew I wanted to grow up and feel that I could change something.”