What Motivated the Same-Sex-Marriage Switchers

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Clockwise, from top left: Janet Duprey, Fred Thiele, Sandy Galef, Tim Gordon, and Bob Reilly. Photo: Courtesy of the New York State Assembly

Last night a bill legalizing same-sex marriage passed the State Assembly with four more votes than it received just two years ago. Some seats had switched party hands, and some members were absent for one vote or the other, but the most interesting difference in the votes were the five legislators who had voted no in 2007 but voted yes this time around. What was behind their changes of heart on the issue?

An aide to Sandy Galef, a Democrat from Westchester, told us that the assemblywoman "always supported civil unions, not gay marriage, in the past, and then she saw [the December 2008 New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission] report that showed the problems with civil unions. So her goal was always — she always wanted to be fair, but she thought civil unions were the best way of accomplishing that for her. But then when she saw the flaws that New Jersey was having with civil unions, that’s what made her turn to vote yes yesterday."

For Tim Gordon, a member of the Independence Party from the capital region, the turnaround was based on a mix of political caution and a concern about civil unions. "When I was running for office in 2006, same-sex marriage wasn't one of my three main platform points, but during the campaign people would ask my opinion on it, and at that time my objective was not to charge into the assembly to redefine a 10,000-year-old institution," he told us. "So at that time I was voting consistent with what I told people during the campaign. But also, at that time, civil unions seemed to have more potential, and we’ve seen just in the last two years that civil unions have really been flawed and haven’t done what they were intended to do." He also decided that same-sex marriage was inevitable, and he might as well get onboard now. "It was clear that this measure, whether it passes this year or next, we’re clearly going to have same-sex marriage within the next — ten years from now, it’ll be hard to imagine we won’t have it."

Fred Thiele, a Republican representing Suffolk County, said in a press release last week, "I didn’t support the bill in 2007 because I thought equal rights could be guaranteed through civil unions. Since then, more states have experimented with civil unions as separate but equal, only to find that discrimination persisted in health care and other areas. The only way to ensure equality is by giving all couples access to the same civil right — the right to marry.” Thiele added that he had previously let his "judgment on this issue be clouded by the political implications of this vote," but that as he "reflected on this issue, there simply was no justification for a 'no' vote. I could not look into the eyes of friends and colleagues I have known for decades and tell them they were not entitled to the same pursuit of happiness as me because of their sexual orientation."

Bob Reilly, a Democrat representing Albany and Saratoga, told us that he's achieved a "greater awareness of the personal pain endured by gay men and women." "When I grew up, I, quite frankly, didn't even know that gay people existed," he admitted. "I wasn't aware of that. And early in my life, the concept of gay people marrying was just not even thought of by anybody. So there's a growth and a change of mindset that happens with individuals and with society as a whole." Recently, Reilly was moved after "hearing different members of the Assembly speak of their personal pain brought on by different forms of discrimination," especially Matt Titone, Daniel O'Donnell, and Deborah Glick. He added that he "has a sense" that his "constituents and the people of New York State as a whole are more accepting of gay marriage than they were two years ago."

Janet Duprey, a Republican from the Northeast corner of the state, has said that she was moved by conversations she had with parents of homosexual children. "To a person, these parents expressed their desire to see their gay and/or lesbian children share the same benefits, protection, and love with their partners as their heterosexual siblings do with their spouses." She added that civil unions could not provide the same rights as marriage, and that the "United States was founded on the principle of equal protection and rights for all, and I will cast my vote for the constitutional rights of same-sex couples."

Earlier: Marriage-Equality Bill Passed in State Assembly