State Senator Diane Savino: Gay-Rights Defender, Karaoke Artist

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Gay marriage did not pass the New York State Senate yesterday, but that doesn't mean some senators didn't get up on the floor and make stirring calls for it. Eric Adams and Ruth Hassell-Thompson were among them (follow the above link to watch their speeches), but yesterday's breakout speaker was the little-known Democratic senator from Staten Island (and some of Brooklyn), Diane Savino, whose speech (click that link again!) was not just moving but funny, resounding with a Staten Islandy, no-bullshit logic toward anti-marriage-equality types who uphold the "sanctity" of marriage. "We have a wedding channel on TV devoted to … people behaving in the most appalling way, all in the effort to be princess for a day," she said, with just a touch of Bolognese-sauce Staten Island–ese. "If there's anybody threatening the sanctity of marriage, it comes from those who have the privilege and the right, and we have abused it for decades." In that moment, it was clear a sassy new gal-pal gay-rights ally was emerging, Lisa Lampanelli with a smart, serious social-justice edge. So we got right on the horn with Savino, who has a labor-union background, and talked about it, as she was filling up her car with gas to drive back to Staten Island.

So, wow. A very moving and funny and sensible speech.
Well, as impressive as people may have found my floor comments, they were not persuasive. We knew going into it that this was a long shot. I felt we were counting votes that were probably not there, and unfortunately, that's what happened.

The handful of votes from Dems people were counting on that didn't come through ... why?
I don't know. They have to examine their own conscience as to why they did this. This is a conscience vote like the death penalty or [reproductive] choice. I never have an issue with people who feel strongly about this from a position of principle. What I do object to is people who voted no for political reasons because they [thought they] couldn't get reelected in their district — or that the backlash would be too much.

What's next for this bill?
I don't know. There's no fallback on it right now, so those of us who are supporters, we have to regroup now. What do we do next? Do we wait until we have different members in the body, try to pass a different piece of legislation? Look at maybe the possibility of a voter referendum?

Hmmm. So it was funny because, under your speech posted online, people commented like, "Oh I didn't know there even were cool people like Diane, or even Democrats, from Staten Island." How does that sit with you?
Staten Island has a reputation as being a very conservative place, bedrock Republicanism, but the truth is, that's not been the case for quite a while now. We have an openly gay elected assemblyman, Matt Titone. The place has doubled in size the past twenty years, with more people having moved there from the other boroughs. I grew up in Queens — Astoria — and I moved there as an adult because I wanted to buy a house and couldn't afford a house in Queens. It's in an area called Fort Wadsworth.

Sell me on it!
First of all, it's right by the Verrazano Bridge, so it's convenient to commuters. Single-family homes, right near the beach. It's a very nice neighborhood.

So a lot of gays will now be calling you fierce, and that's a good thing!
So I'm told.

What's your gay cred? Do you have gay friends or family?
No gay family, but I do have gay friends, just like everybody of our generation now. I'm in my 40s.

Who's your best gay friend?
Matt Titone! We've been friends about five years. And he has a partner, Josh, and they have a wonderful relationship, together fourteen or fifteen years now. And they are married in every sense of the word but the legal one.

Did anyone in the Senate cry out of disappointment?
Many people did. Tom Duane, of course. Matt. I saw [Christine Quinn] the speaker of the New York City Council shed a few tears. [This was rejected by] the New York State Senate, a place where some incredibly progressive laws have been passed.

Do you go out and drink margaritas and do karaoke with your gay friends?
We have dinner together.

Do you sing show tunes together around the piano?
No. Well, actually Matt and I, every year in the legislature, they have this Legislative Idol, and members sign up to sing some dopey song, so Matt and I perform. The first year, with the rest of the Staten Island delegation, we dressed up as the Partridge Family and sang "I Think I Love You," and it was really quite embarrassing. Then next time, Matt and I dressed up as Sonny and Cher and we did "I Got You Babe."

Okay. So what else is important to you in your job right now?
Dealing with next year's budget crisis. This deficit-reduction act (the Senate passed yesterday) is just a prelude to next year. We are going to have to make some really difficult decisions about cutting spending that we all have to care about it. Everyone is going to have to suffer a little.

Well, okay, you had an intense day. How will you chill out tonight?
I'm going to meet Matt and his partner, and we're going to have dinner and commiserate on the failure of this vote. We're going to Enoteca Maria, where every night a woman from a different region of Italy is the cook.

You're cool. Do you want a boyfriend?
Why, are you asking me out?

No, I'm a gay, you couldn't tell? I thought I might try to set you up.
No, I have one.

Are you guys going to get married?
I don't know. Maybe one day. This is the closest I've ever got.

Are you the type who says you won't get married till your gay friends can get married, too?
No. I think the likelihood is that they'll get married before I do.

Earlier: Watch more of the speeches here.