Gay Marriage – A Priority For Immigrants?

A march for marriage equality in New York - Photo: Towleroad

A march for marriage equality in New York. (Photo: Towleroad/flickr)

NEW YORK—Governor Andrew Cuomo, during his first state of the state address, called for “justice for all” through the passage of a marriage equality bill this year.  A majority of New Yorkers now favor equal rights for gay couples—a recent Sienna Poll shows a 12-point margin in support of same-sex marriage in every region of the state. Is it inevitable that lesbian and gay New Yorkers will soon have the freedom to wed?

The Empire Pride State Agenda (EPSA), a leading advocate for gay marriage in New York, is cautiously optimistic. “There is a clear and credible path to victory this year,” said George Simpson, the group’s communications coordinator. In addition to support from the new governor, Simpson says it’s a good sign that Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has indicated his openness to a conscience vote, which bodes well for gay marriage legislation. But Simpson hedged his bets, admitting that there will be several challenges ahead.

“It will take a lot of hard work to achieve marriage equality in New York State this year. It’s always difficult to predict when a vote on anything will happen in Albany,” Simpson said.  In addition, gay marriage advocates are up against an unanticipated nine billion dollar budget deficit, challenging economic times, and the dysfunction of Albany.

Some queer activists in immigrant communities are skeptical about pushing a marriage equality bill at this time. They contend that it isn’t the number one priority for most New Yorkers, straight or gay.

Noel Bordador, an Episcopal priest who serves a Chinatown congregation and helps lead the Filipino lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organization Barangay NY, points out that for many immigrants, particularly those new to the United States, survival is their main concern.

“What is most important to them is getting a job, settling in a new home, trying to fit in,” said Bordador.

Andres Duque, a Latino LGBT rights activist and blogger, said though he doesn’t consider himself in this category, (see comment below) he knows certain queer Latino activists who don’t understand why gay advocates are pushing this one issue above all else when there are bigger problems to be addressed such as inequality and poverty.

The Williams Institute confirms that among those living in poverty, LGBT individuals and families tend to be worse off than their straight counterparts.  But Simpson contends that marriage rights would benefit them economically.

“If these families are left without the social safety net that government provides through marriage to all other families, it will be more difficult for family members to take care of one another. For the price of a marriage license, a family can gain rights and privileges from the State of New York, which can be an enormous value for a family of limited means,” said Simpson.

Yet a 2009 Human Rights Campaign report revealed that people of color who identify as LGBT consider affordable health care, jobs and the economy and racial equality to be more important issues than marriage equality.

Jason Tseng, co-chair of the organization Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York thinks the problem with focusing on marriage—straight or gay—is that it perpetuates the conventional notion and legal construct of family which does not reflect the lives of many immigrants and LGBT people.

Immigrant families, he argued, tend not to be made up solely of a married straight couple and their children living under one roof.  Rather, families of color tend to be more broad, embracing grandparents, uncles, aunts and other kin. “A large chunk of the Asian American community is matriarchal and multi-generational,” he said.

Tseng’s concern is that the push for marriage equality supports the conventional idea of a nuclear family, which the U.S. Census estimates describes only 21 percent of American households. He says the notion of family, and the rights therein, should be expanded to include and protect all the various family configurations.

“Take for example,” Tseng said, “a grandmother who is taking care of grandchildren whose parents are migrant workers and are not around. She has limited legal rights over these kids.” Unconventional families like this one do not enjoy the benefits and protections afforded married couples.

Another issue specifically affecting immigrants is that even if gay marriage is legalized in New York, LGBT couples will not benefit from the over 1,100 federal benefits, rights and privileges counted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.  Lesbian and gay New Yorkers will still not be able to sponsor foreign-born spouses for permanent residency, so marriage will not be a path to citizenship for lesbians and gays.

Bordador, Duque and Tseng nonetheless say that marriage rights are important and that some immigrants will benefit from the passage of a marriage equality law. “Winning civil rights for any group is always good,” concedes Tseng.

Bordador also acknowledges the value of the benefits and protections that will be gained. “I will no longer have to worry about things like hospital visitation rights—at least while my husband and I are in town,” said Bordador, who wed his long-time partner in California during the short period gay marriage was legal in that state.

Ijo, an Indonesian journalism student, and Arun (both asked that their real names not be used), a Burmese-American banker plan to marry in Connecticut next month even though Arun will be unable procure a green card for Ijo.  They both strongly believe that everybody has the right to marry. “It legitimizes our relationship, it elevates our status,” said Ijo, who is baffled by New York’s failure to legalize gay unions. “New York, like the Netherlands, has always been a mecca for gay people worldwide, but it has a problem with passing marriage equality. I don’t get it,” he said.

Gay marriage advocates say there are economic benefits to passing a marriage bill. In 2007, the New York City Comptroller’s office estimated that marriage equality could bring a net economic impact of $184 million to the state, mainly an increase in the number of visitors who will come to participate in or attend marriage ceremonies. Simpson said he doesn’t see how anyone could easily justify giving up such an economic boost during these difficult economic times.

The executive director of Freedom to Marry, longtime civil rights leader and Brooklyn native Evan Wolfson, firmly believes marriage equality is a civil rights issue that affects every American. “The denial of the freedom to marry with all its tangible and intangible protections, consequences, and meaning hurts everyone—not least because it is state-sponsored discrimination based on who we are and who we love, which is intolerable,” he told Fi2W in an email.

Marriage equality may not be the top priority for many New Yorkers, but even queer immigrant activists agree that its passage would expand civil rights in the state and codify the fundamental dignity of LGBT individuals and their families. If New York heeds Governor Cuomo’s call and joins other states including Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia in legalizing gay marriage, it would add momentum to the national movement that hopefully will lead to true equality for all LGBT couples.

You can follow Erwin on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon and read his blog Conversations.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.