Thursday, May 24, 2007

Seeking a bridge to victory in NY

Seeking A Bridge To Victory

Gustavo Archilla, 91, and Elmer Lokkins, 88, first spied each other 62 years ago in Colombus Circle
A dire weekend weather forecast that revived memories of last year - when heavy downpours drenched roughly 1,000 participants - made the 2007 Wedding March this past Saturday the smallest in the event's four-year history.
No more than 200 turned out May 19 for the annual grassroots gathering organized by Marriage Equality New York (MENY), which this year began with a rally in Foley Square just above City Hall that was followed by a wind-swept, at times wet trudge over the Brooklyn Bridge to Cadman Plaza near Borough Hall.

Those who turned out were fortified not only by small umbrellas arrayed in the six colors of the rainbow, by which marchers organized themselves, but more importantly by the encouraging words from the two legislators carrying Governor Eliot Spitzer's marriage equality bill in Albany - Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell and Senator Tom Duane, both out gay Manhattan Democrats.

O'Donnell, who represents the Upper West Side, told the crowd that in the weeks since he assumed sponsorship of the bill the governor announced at the end of April, he had identified 52 colleagues willing to sign on as co-sponsors and another 20 or so who are prepared to vote aye when the measure comes to the floor. In the 150-member chamber, 76 votes are needed for passage. (On Wednesday, an O'Donnell spokesperson said the total number of sponsors had risen this week to 55, with as many as 78 expressing willingness to support the bill in a floor vote. See sidebar, p. 7)

In the immediate wake of Spitzer's introduction of his program bill, O'Donnell said that the biggest misconception he must overcome among his colleagues is the fear that marriage equality would in some unexplained fashion compel communities of faith to perform wedding ceremonies against their will. He closed his relatively brief remarks in Foley Square Saturday by quoting Thomas Jefferson, with an observation that examined the church/ state separation issue from precisely the opposite perspective: "Our civil liberties have no dependence on religious opinion."

Across the East River, in Cadman Plaza, O'Donnell's Senate counterpart, Duane, didn't wade into the numbers game, instead choosing the part of cheerleader.

"I believe in the marriage vernacular," he told a crowd that had dissipated after 45 minutes of a chilly, damp trek. "It's raining. We're having good luck and we're having good luck in the Legislature... We're going to have marriage in New York State very, very, very, very, very soon."

It's probably not a coincidence that it was O'Donnell and not Duane who was engaged in handicapping his colleagues' likely intentions. With the Senate in Republican hands, even by the slimmest of margins, no vote on marriage equality is in the offing there, at least for this session. In contrast, there is a very good chance that the Assembly could vote before the June 21 recess, and O'Donnell's job between now and then is to convince his Democratic colleagues, who number a lopsided 108 out of 150 in total, that he has built a sufficiently cushy majority to put his party's caucus behind it by bringing it to the floor.

For some grassroots activists on hand Saturday, action cannot come fast enough.

Gustavo Archilla was heading home from voice lessons at Carnegie Hall when he met his lover Elmer Lokkins in Columbus Circle. The year was 1945, and Archilla, a native of Puerto Rico by then living in New York, worked in what was at that time a thriving shipping industry here. Lokkins, raised in Sunnyside, Washington, had just come out of the service, where he had spent time in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Australia, and was in New York hoping to gain late admission to Columbia University. He was listening to a man giving a speech in Columbus Circle when he was approached by someone whom he immediately came to think of as his "beautiful Spanish don."

The couple has been together for the more than six decades since - Archilla is 91 and Lokkins turned 88 on Sunday - and today live in their home of the past half-century in Morningside Gardens near Columbia. For most of that life together, legal marriage was probably not conceivable, and in its place they enjoyed a full life, the support and love of family and friends, and most importantly, each other.

"After 62 years, it's wonderful to have a partner who gives you a kiss every time he walks by you," Archilla said with evident emotion about Lokkins on Saturday.

Still, the world keeps changing and in 2003 Canada brought something new into their life. They married across the bridge in Niagara Falls that year.

Speaking to the audience in Cadman Plaza on Saturday, Archilla said, "Canada made it possible for us. I hope everywhere else it will soon be possible. Maybe while we are still alive, though there is not much time left."

Other couples are, relatively speaking, just starting their journey.

Allison Lucey and Amanda Smith, who live on the Upper East Side, have been together for three-and-a-half years. Asked whether they had registered as domestic partners, the couple explained they had not; instead, they said, they are engaged. They plan to be married in August 2008. In New York, if that is possible. In New Jersey, if things proceed from civil unions to marriage equality there faster there than here. Or, if neither state delivers by then, they will marry in Canada.

Regarding the prospect of a New York wedding, Lucey said, "We stay hopeful, with cautious optimism."

Lucey, who works in sports marketing, grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her partner was raised just across the George Washington Bridge, in Bergen County, New Jersey. Asked about the support they get from family and straight friends for their plans to marry, the couple said the enthusiasm is uniform - in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Lucey said that the strongest booster each of them has is their own sister; in Smith's case a twin.

Jeffrey Friedman and Andrew Zwerin have been together for 22 years, but it ought to be mentioned in the same breath that the couple met while at JFK High School in Bellmore, Long Island. Today, after many years living in Brooklyn Heights, they are back on the Island, in Rockville Center, where they are raising their son Joshua Zwerin, who is almost four.
Zwerin works at HBO; his partner is a stay-at-home dad, and the two have been active for some time in the marriage equality movement. Several years ago, they participated in the Wedding Party commitment ceremony held in the park opposite the Plaza Hotel on the morning of the LGBT Pride March. And they traveled to Albany on May 1 to join the Empire State Pride Agenda in its annual Equality & Justice legislative lobbying day.

The couple noted that their state senator is Dean Skelos, the second-ranking Republican, who voted against the gay civil rights law when it was enacted in 2002, but said their neighbors have been very friendly and supportive - though they conceded they don't recall the Welcome Wagon arriving that very first day.

Gene Guzman turned up in Foley Square by himself on Saturday, but he was carrying the picture he said he will go back home 10 blocks to retrieve it he realizes he's forgotten it. Guzman and Augustine Medina spent 30 years together as a couple before Medina died of liver disease four years ago. They met as teenagers in Chicago - where Guzman grew up and Medina moved after his early years in Puerto Rico - and immediately began hitting the burgeoning Windy City gay scene in the early 1970s. Guzman recalls them getting their "heads busted" during those exploits.

Together in Chicago for five years, Guzman and Medina moved to New York, where both worked in the gourmet food industry. Like Lucey and Smith, they were never drawn to register as domestic partners with the city; instead they drew up wills, healthcare proxies, and powers of attorney to protect their union and their property. For much of their time in New York, the couple lived in Brooklyn Heights, though they bought a condo, in Guzman's name, in Hell's Kitchen not long before Medina died.

Guzman said with the loss of his longtime partner came diminished household income, with none of the survivor benefits that might have come from marriage. At 53, he said he dates occasionally but has not yet been moved to think about a new relationship.

Medina, who had been ill for three-and-a-half years, was buried in Chicago, next to his brother, also a gay man, who predeceased him, having succumbed to AIDS.

Guzman said he remains close to Medina's family and when he visits Chicago, his late partner's nieces and nephews often suggest that they hang out in the gay clubs on the city's near north side. As he talked about his younger family members, Guzman pointed toward several younger marchers nearby on the Brooklyn Bridge.

"I'm out here for these younger kids," he said, as he toyed with the photo in his jacket pocket.

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