New Yorker Festival Hosts Marriage Equality Debate

This past Saturday, the New Yorker Festival hosted an educational and entertaining panel about marriage equality at the SVA (School of Visual Arts) Theatre in Chelsea, Manhattan.

Moderated by Jeffrey Toobin and titled “The Case for Gay Marriage,” the debate incorporated many interesting perspectives and arguments that left both the speakers and the audience passionate about the issue.

The panelists included David Boies, the plantiffs’ attorney in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which successfully repealed Proposition 8; Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage; R. Clarke Cooper, the Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that works within the Republican Party to advocate for LGBT rights; Cynthia Nixon, former star of Sex and the City and LGBT movement icon; and Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay priest to become bishop of an Episcopalian church.

The discussion began with a look at why marriage for gay and lesbian couples was an important issue to each of the panelists and the differences between civil and religious marriage. Issues addressed throughout the debate included Proposition 8, religious liberty, the economic implications of marriage for same-sex couples, and the generational gap in opinion.

Cooper expressed his firm stance that there is room for LGBT equality in the Republican Party, calling it “an internal dialogue that’s taking place.” “No Republican I’ve heard of would want someone to lose their job based on their sexual orientation,” he commented when discussing the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He expressed hope for this upcoming election cycle, stating that “these tactics in 2004 did not work in the long run,” and suggested that Republicans may regain the voters they lost in 2004 as well as attract new ones. “What we’re doing, in that bridging sense, is working with the party … If I’m not doing it, if fellow Log Cabin Republicans aren’t doing it, no one will.” He listed limited government, fewer taxes, and competent foreign policy as some common denominators for all Republicans and explained that change needs to come from within to be effective.

David Boies was perhaps the star of the discussion, receiving consistently enthusiastic feedback from the audience throughout the entire event. When confronted with the fact that no referendums have passed on this issue, he said that was why the courts existed. “The whole point of the Constitution is that there are certain fundamental rights protected for everybody,” which are not put to a majority vote, he explained. He described the Constitution and the courts as a combination of these democratic principles and was confident that Judge Walker’s decision would stand. “Our society has always had great ideals of equality … This battle is over; it’s just a question of how soon people will get equal rights.” Bishop Robinson echoed this sentiment, saying “I think the laws will change soon—look how much change we’ve seen in such a short time.”

Cynthia Nixon took a very personal viewpoint on the issue. She strongly believes that a marriage between her and her fiancée would have no impact on heterosexual couples. “Gay people who want to marry do not want to redefine marriage in any way…we have no desire to change marriage,” she said in response to Brown’s suggestion that marriage for same-sex couples would redefine an institution that has been around for centuries. She pointed out that granting women’s suffrage did not redefine voting, and the sit-ins by African Americans to achieve equality during the civil rights movement did not redefine dining out, but that they were the extension of rights to which those groups were already entitled. Boies agreed, saying that ever since the Declaration of Independence was written by white males, “Gradually, what we have done as a country is expand who we are.”

Brown was the sole representative against the legalization of marriage equality, saying “I think it’s just fundamentally wrong.” He made several arguments throughout the debate focusing on the importance of children, procreation, and unity. He described men and women as the “two great halves of humanity,” and emphasized marriage as a near universal institution that societies have used to bring men and women together. Brown disagreed with Boies’ suggestion that rational arguments were not made by the defendants of Proposition 8, calling Judge Walker’s handling of the case a “show trial,” and saying that the judge ignored the evidence and documents against him. He suggested that the rights same-sex couples lack without marriage be addressed separately by the courts—to which Nixon sarcastically pointed out there were 1,100, and that “hell will freeze over before you can do that.”

Bishop Robinson brought a unique perspective to the conversation, as he differentiated the religious context of marriage from the political and legal contexts. He reiterated the holy nature of marriage as a sacrament within religion, calling it “a window into the heart of God … a tiny glimpse into God’s unimaginable love for us.” He called marriage for gay and lesbian couples a live issue particularly in the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist churches and stated that while his church tries to be as sensitive as possible to everyone else, he feels “this is the church God is calling us to be.”  His definition of marriage was “the decision to make a place in your heart for another person,” and to love them as much as or more than yourself. This complemented Nixon’s thoughts that marriage would allow a couple to be “seen by friends and the world at large as an indissoluble unit, a family unit,” and that it would ensure not just rights, but responsibilities.

The discussion, including an engaging Q&A period with the audience, lasted about two hours and still did not address every issue. It summarized many of the concerns that continue to arise among Americans trying to understand the subject of marriage equality and reemphasized the many sides of the debate. GLAAD highly supports public events like these that allow an array of opinions to be represented, and thanks the New Yorker Festival for hosting such an informative panel.