In February 2004, the new mayor of New Paltz, New York, was thrust into the national spotlight. Jason West, acting on principle and hoping to “maybe start a little case law,” began to marry same-sex couples. He married two dozen in one day and made headlines across the country. “We forgot we were a few miles away from the headquarters of every major news organization,” he joked today, looking back. The not-yet-30 West was stopped by a judicial order and charged with nineteen misdemeanor counts of “solemnizing marriages without a license,” charges that were later dropped. He was voted out of office in 2007 and continued his work as a house painter. We caught up with him this morning just as he climbed off a ladder. Now 34, West is still a painter, but in May he was reelected mayor of the quiet village. He had some things to say about the gay-marriage bill poised to be voted on this week in the state legislature.
“I got a lot of attention for the marriages,” he says, looking back. “But I came late to the game. There’s people been working on this for 30, 40 years.” He talked about growing up with Robin Williams in The Birdcage as his first gay pop-culture touchstone. “Now it’s so normal,” he says. “Simply by virtue of hundreds of thousands of people coming out. I think that’s the important behind-the-scenes issue … What happened in New Paltz and Massachusetts and San Francisco is a result of that, not the start of it.”
Still, West thinks, the nuptials he performed — which were never valid — made a difference in his town. Seeing them moved people from “an abstract, ‘Sure, why not? I’ll support marriage equality’” attitude to something more serious. “Seeing their own neighbors get married moved people from ambivalence to ‘How could I deny that happiness to my neighbors?’” Though 24 couples got married that day in front of a couple hundred people, West says “the level of applause for the last couple was the same as the level of the first. Seeing people get married.” It was, he said, “one of the best days of my life.”
Another thing that helped local opinions change was a visit from the virulently anti-gay protest group the Westboro Baptist Church. “I saw more than one veteran come out to see what the hell was going on, saw what they are doing, and took our side,” West recalls. “They don’t want to associate with that kind of hate.”
As for what’s going on in Albany this week, as much as there’s good news, West is still left scratching his head. “What I don’t understand is that the Republican Party in New York was never run by the Christian Coalition, it’s not led by evangelicals,” he points out. “This is the party of Nelson Rockefeller, it’s the northeast industrial party. I don’t understand why so many intelligent people insist upon being on the wrong side of history on this issue.” If Cuomo’s bill doesn’t pass this week, he predicts it will soon. “If we don’t have marriage equality this week, there’s going to be someone who walks out of that voting room regretting it and who’s going to kick themselves and vote yes next year.”