NEW YORK (AFP) – Gay New Yorkers basked in the glow Saturday of a landmark decision by the state senate to legalize gay marriage, a powerful victory for rights advocates in one of the most populous and influential American states.
Gay rights supporters chanted and danced in the streets of New York city into pre-dawn hours as news spread that the Republican-controlled chamber had narrowly approved the “Marriage Equality Act” in the state where the gay rights movement began 40 years ago.
Activists expressed hope the decision will galvanize the national gay rights movement after a series of setbacks.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law Friday just before midnight (0400 GMT Saturday), making New York the sixth and largest state where gay couples can legally wed once the bill takes effect in 30 days.
Cheers erupted in the senate galleries in state capital Albany when legislators voted 33-29 to approve the measure after weeks of intense wrangling. The 29 Democratic senators were joined by four Republicans, one more than the minimum needed for approval.
US President Barack Obama visited New York a day before the vote, speaking at a fundraising gala sponsored by the gay and lesbian community, and while he did not explicitly endorse the bid to pass a gay marriage law, his appearance was seen as a shot in the arm for the movement.
Crowds of people gathered to hug, dance and cheer outside the Stonewall Inn, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where riots broke out on June 28, 1969 after police raided the gay-friendly bar. The incident is seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
“I’m ecstatic! I was waiting 30 years for that moment,” said Frank Frederick, a 52-year-old doorman outside one of the bars near the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street.
Cuomo, who had lobbied hard for the measure, beamed after it was approved.
“Democracy works when the people speak. And the people spoke in volumes over these past few months. And this legislature responded this week to their calls,” Cuomo said at a press conference soon after the vote.
“What we accomplished this evening with marriage equality really in some ways brings it all home. Because this state, when it is at its finest, is a beacon for social justice.”
Marc Grisanti, one of the Republicans who voted for the measure in Albany, agonized over his decision.
“I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage,” Grisanti said as he was about to vote. “I cannot deny a person, a human being… the same rights I have with my wife.”
The outcome is a dramatic reversal of fortune for gay rights activists after the New York senate soundly rejected a similar bill in December 2009, and similar measures failed in New Jersey in 2010 and in Maryland and Rhode Island earlier this year.
“Today is a day to celebrate, but we must be ever vigilant in protecting this victory we’ve worked so hard to win,” Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said in a statement.
“We need to help frame the national narrative… so equality and justice do not end at our borders.”
New York state lawmakers had been in drawn-out negotiations in an extraordinary session, putting final touches on language designed to address legal protections for religious organizations that did not want to be charged with discrimination if they object to same-sex marriage.
New York followed the path of Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont in approving gay marriage. Some states like California offer same-sex civil unions, but not marriage rights.
A March poll found that 53 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing gay marriage.
The New York Civil Liberties Union applauded the vote as “a victory for families and a victory for human rights.”
The Log Cabin Republicans, which represents gay members of the party, congratulated the Republicans who voted in favor of the bill.
“Republicans in the New York state senate stood up for true conservative values: individual liberty, personal freedom and equal rights for all, and we thank them for voting on the right side of history,” said Gregory Angelo, head of the group’s New York chapter.
But the New York state Catholic Conference of bishops said approval of a bill “to alter radically and forever humanity’s historic understanding of marriage leaves us deeply disappointed and troubled.”