Photos by Lauren Thomas
Back 10 years ago, something momentous happened in New Paltz. Twenty-five same-sex couples were married by Mayor Jason West in protest of New York’s marriage laws.
Those February 2004 weddings took place only a few months after Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s groundbreaking “Goodridge v. Department of Public Health” decision — which made gay marriage legal for the first time in a U.S. state. Goodridge is also a court case cited over and over in recent judicial rulings overturning bans on same-sex marriage.
A decade ago, New Paltz stood with Massachusetts and San Francisco, Calif. on the front lines of the gay rights movement. In reaction to what happened in Massachusetts, after 2004 state after state enacted bans on same-sex marriage.
Momentum of those anti-gay marriage headwinds only broke after the Supreme Court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional in June 2013’s “Windsor v. United States.” Since then, state-level bans have toppled like dominoes.
During last weekend’s Hudson Valley LGBTQ Pride March and Festival, a small plaque marking the spot where those New Paltz marriages occurred in Peace Park was unveiled.
For Ulster County Legislator Hector Rodriguez, D-New Paltz, that’s nothing but a good thing.
“This is a fantastic event that honors equality for everyone,” Rodriguez said. “Think how different America is than 10 years ago. Now marriage equality will become the norm everywhere in this country.”
Sean Eldridge, Congressional candidate for New York’s 19th District, said he doesn’t think the work to end discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexual or transgendered persons is over.
“I grew up in a small town in Ohio, northwest Ohio. And I grew up in a community where there were no Prides. It was not that long ago. There were no gay-straight alliances. There was no community center. In fact, there were no openly gay people where I grew up,” Eldridge said. “And now I get to stand here, among all of you, in an incredibly supportive community and run for Congress as an openly gay, married man.
“And that’s pretty incredible.”
Eldridge urged people not to take for granted the strides made in gay rights.
“We cannot forget that this progress didn’t happen on its own,” he said. “We are not done until everyone can marry the person they love in all 50 states — and our marriages still exist when we travel throughout our country. We’re not done until nobody is fired from their job or kicked out of their home because of who they are or who they love.”
The Pride parade this year honored Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, and Suzanne McHugh and AnnaMae Schuler as the parade’s grand marshals. Schuler and McHugh are a lesbian couple, who were among the original 25 same-sex couples married in New Paltz.
Daniel Torres, now a New Paltz Town Board member, remembers being a middle school student during 2004’s same-sex marriages. As kids, his classmates were shocked to see the protests and negativity surrounding gay marriage.
“I think it had a profound impact on me,” Torres said. “It shaped our political philosophy.”
Torres noted that Peace Park is one of only a handful of gay rights landmarks with a historical marker.
“This is one of the only ones in the U.S. or the world that has something to do with recognizing gay rights,” he said.
Originally, New Paltz officials had wanted to install a narrative plaque listing the names of all 25 couples and telling their story. That could still be in the works, but additional fundraising will have to take place.
Recently, the National Parks Service has pushed to designate places important to gay rights — like Stonewall Inn in Manhattan — on the historic register. Something like that could help fund a more comprehensive memorial in New Paltz, Torres added.
Following the march, there was a festival at Hasbrouck Park. Award-winning musicians and performers — including comedienne Julie Novak, trailblazing all-women rock band Big Sister, Woodstock-based rock group Hemingway’s Cat and the all-youth Percussion Orchestra of Kingston — took to the stage.
The festivities concluded with a party-after-pride from 4 to 8 p.m. at Joe’s East-West in New Paltz, which featured live DJs, rooftop dancing and a performance by award-winning rock group Sister Funk.