T his fine morning, with the New York State Senate tantalizingly close to a vote on same-sex marriage it will later delay making, actress and activist Cynthia Nixon is struggling to contain her excitement. “It’s not done until it’s done, obviously. You don’t want to count chickens, you want to count votes. But I feel like there’s a feeling of optimism we’ve never had, being one vote away and having the support of the governor the way we do,” she says, devouring a salmon lunch at French bistro Nice Matin on the Upper West Side. She lives nearby with her girlfriend, stay-at-home mom Christine Marinoni, who in February gave birth to Max, the newest addition to a truly modern family that includes Samantha, 14, and Charlie, 8, from Nixon’s former relationship with Danny Mozes. Two years ago, when Nixon and Marinoni took a lobbying trip to Albany before the last vote on gay marriage, “there was a lot of hope, but it felt more like a wing-and-a-prayer kind of hope. And now, I feel like this is totally going to happen. If not today, then next week,” she says. “I feel like it’s really imminent.”
Without marriage, Marinoni has parental rights to only one of the three children she’s raising. And although the couple is betrothed, they’ve been holding out for a wedding in New York. “We like Connecticut and Massachusetts and Vermont and Iowa,” says Nixon. “But it’s not the same as getting married where you live, where you’re from. There is something about being proud of your state.”
Nixon wasn’t always a symbol of gay pride. She was outed in 2004, after wrapping Sex and the City’s TV run, though she’s quick to point out that she wasn’t actively hiding her relationship with Marinoni. “The tabloids broke it because I confirmed it,” she says. “They asked me the question, and I said yes.” That she seemed to go silent on the subject for the next couple of years, she says, was a function of not having acting projects that required her to talk to the press between SATC and her 2006 Tony-winning role in Rabbit Hole. But, platform or no, activism always came naturally, she says. “Before I ever started dating a woman, I would go to GLAAD and I would make speeches. I did a lot of speaking out about funding for public schools and a woman’s right to choose and breast cancer.” From there, leading rallies for gay marriage “seemed like a natural thing.”
On June 14, speaking out meant a trip to Albany for a press conference with Sean Avery of the New York Rangers, the first in a number of tough-guy athletes to join the cause. “Two years ago,” she says, “the movement felt very disorganized; it felt very in-your-face and not so respectful.” Now, not only have the state’s five big LGBT groups learned to work together, but they’ve allowed state senators the time and space to make up their minds. “To some people, it seems as obvious as the nose on your face: ‘Of course this should be allowed.’ But for other people, it’s a big journey. It’s a big turning around of their mind-set, and you can’t yell at people and make them do that.” That need for patience is why she’s not joining the chorus criticizing President Obama for his slowly “evolving” stance on the matter. “I think evolution is terrific,” says Nixon. “I believe in evolution.”
Just before the 2009 vote, Nixon says she had a long, intense conversation with State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, an African-American Democrat representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester who was facing pressure from her church and family to vote no. Eventually, she came around, drawing from her own experiences: She’d seen her mother’s difficulty becoming her church’s first female deacon, and she’d watched in pain as her brother, now dead, was ostracized for being gay. Relating the story, Nixon starts to cry.
During last week’s trip to Albany, Nixon ran into Hassell-Thompson for the first time since that unsuccessful vote. “And what really struck me when I saw her was her lightness of spirit. She was so happy that this was imminent, but also about her decision. There are people that are voting no, and maybe it doesn’t torture them. But there is a fairly large group of people who feel like this is the right thing to do and the thing they want to do, and it weighs on them and it haunts them, and they’re trying to weigh in political expediency and maybe people turning against them. But when I see Ruth Hassell-Thompson and when I see Senator Alesi, and that they’ve made this decision, they’re so happy. There’s that lightness: ‘I can actually vote the way I want to vote, and I can feel like I’m doing the right thing and I’m being brave.’ It’s a Rubicon to cross, but when people actually cross it and get to the other side, it’s so much better than they thought it would be.”