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Upholding Gay Rights in New York

By Ed Koch

Last Sunday's Gay Pride Parade was one of the biggest and most successful ever held in New York City.

It has become not only an assertion and statement in support of the rights of New Yorkers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered, but also a Mardi Gras with floats and entertainment. All in all, it was simply superb. The crowds lining the streets were huge, with many out-of-towners applauding the marchers, in addition to New Yorkers, both gay and straight. People were smiling and cheering. The cops in charge of traffic were in good spirits and all was right with the world, at least here in Manhattan, its capital.

Without a doubt, we in New York City are living in the capital of commerce, culture, communications and finance. Regrettably, we are not the capital of the world with regard to human rights: Not until the New York State legislature legalizes same-sex marriage will we be able to claim that distinction -- Massachusetts now being the only state which does.

But we have come a long way. I recall the riot at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 during the Lindsay years. It was a private club frequented by gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered. The cops entered the club on June 28, 1969 for no legal purpose, arresting patrons simply because they were there. The patrons, outraged at the discriminatory acts of the cops, fought back. That was the beginning of the gay rights movement in New York City.

Now gay rights paraders make symbolic stops in front of the Stonewall Inn which still exists on Christopher Street to honor those who stood up for the rights of the gay community.

The first gay pride parade was held on June 28, 1970 commemorating the Stonewall riot with the parade starting in Greenwich Village marching uptown on Sixth Avenue to Central Park. Each year the parade number has increased. In the mid 1970s, I was the Congressman from the 17th C.D. which included Greenwich Village and, at the request of the gay leadership, I met with the Beame administration accompanied by gay activists Ethan Geto and Morty Manford. We urged that administration to allow the parade to use the more prestigious Fifth Avenue. They did.

In the parade this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined the southbound parade at Fifth Avenue and 48th Street. He was condemned by two grand marshals of the parade, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York City's Congregation Beth Simchat Torah and Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church. Rabbi Kleinbaum was quoted as saying, "Shame on you, Mr. Bloomberg. We expect you to be at the head of the march." She referred to the fact that the march started at 52nd Street. The New York Sun in an editorial on June 25th gave the historical background for the mayor's action: "What the parade leaders were apparently upset about was that Mr. Bloomberg, like his predecessors Mayors Koch and Giuliani, joined the parade after it passed St. Patrick's Cathedral, thus avoiding the possibility of being caught up in any spontaneous displays of disrespect as the parade passed the seat of the Archdiocese in New York of the Roman Catholic Church."

I initiated that tradition for a reason. It had become the practice in the past of some paraders while passing the cathedral to engage in activities intended to insult the Catholic Church and the Cardinal because of their views on homosexuality. I had excellent relations with the Church and its Cardinal, and still do. I did not want to be present when and if it occurred. Other officeholders, mayors and others, followed my initiative of joining the parade at 48th Street. There was and is no way of preventing insulting behavior and counterproductive conduct -- which most in the parade would deplore. For Rabbi Kleinbaum not to understand that and to censure Mayor Bloomberg, a great friend of the gay community, who supports its agenda, including same-sex marriage, as I do, is surely bizarre and unwarranted.

We now live in a city where a majority of citizens and most of its elected officials are supporters of gay rights. A city where the Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, is an open lesbian who was elected with that knowledge by the voters to the City Council. Ms. Quinn is also perceived as a major candidate for mayor in the 2009 election. In my opinion, the battle to gain acceptance and permission to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade -- a long fought battle -- has also been won. I have urged the leaders of the gay community to declare that every gay rights supporter, homosexual and heterosexual, should join the City Council members and march with the Speaker up Fifth Avenue. Regrettably, the Speaker has declined my suggestion that she march in that parade. I hope next year she will march in the St. Patrick's Day parade. If she does, I'll march alongside her, and I have no doubt that many public officials from all over the country would join her.

Yes, we have come a long way since I signed an executive order in January of 1978 in my first 30 days as mayor prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by the government in employment and housing. We went even further in 1986 when the City council prohibited discrimination in the private sector in the fields of employment and housing.

The Governor of the State of New York, Eliot Spitzer, has announced that he supports a change in the state law to allow same-sex marriage. The State Assembly with the concurrence of Speaker Sheldon Silver has passed a same-sex marriage bill 85 to 61. Those supporting gay rights including same-sex marriage -- gay and straight alike -- should try to persuade the majority leader of the State Senate, Joe Bruno, to pass a similar bill in the State Senate. Bruno was responsible for passing gay rights legislation in 2002 that protects all New Yorkers from discrimination in employment and housing -- similar to that which we passed in New York City in 1986. I thanked Senator Bruno by letter on December 24, 2002, writing, "Over the years, we have discussed passage of the gay rights legislation. When you told me that your caucus opposed it and would not permit the bill to be brought to the floor for a vote, I must confess I did not believe that could be possible. Yet, events established it was true, and it took your major efforts to secure the 13 Republican votes that ultimately were cast in support of the legislation. It would not have happened without you, and I hope that supporters of the legislation -- in and out of the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans -- give you full credit."

Joe Bruno replied on January 2, 2003, writing, "Thank you for your very encouraging letter, and for all of the support that you have given the Republican Majority in the past. I am glad that we were able to recognize the importance of the gay rights legislation. It is unfortunate that it took so long to pass, but at least it is done now. The issue of gay rights is one which people often relate to politically, rather than objectively. You have been a staunch advocate of equality and anti-discrimination, which is very much a credit to you in your life."

Once again, we see the validity of Victor Hugo's observation in 1852, "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come."

Ed Koch is the former Mayor of New York City.

Having discussed Michael Bloomberg, I must acknowledge that Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg Radio. I appear as a commentator on Bloomberg Radio every week. And as all regular contributors, I am compensated by Bloomberg Radio.


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