"Out of the night that covers me black as the pit from pole to pole I thank whatever Gods might be for my unconquerable soul"
William Ernest Henley's words from his poem Invictus echoed through my brain as we shuffled through the bitter river wind in Trenton, on January 7, in the late afternoon light, carrying the signs that proclaimed our heartfelt desire for equality. My entire psychology class had had to memorize this as part of our curriculum and the words that had resonated in my 17-year-old soul did so for me again this chilly afternoon, though for different reasons. What a week it was!
On Monday morning, January 4, at the crack of dawn, I marched myself to Panera and met two friends and we carpooled to the Lobby day. Allen Neuner is an experienced hand at the work that we were doing and his expert guidance made a potentially overwhelming day manageable. We attended committees, lobbied our legislators, and seemed to have a real shot at equality if Senate President Codey released the legislation to the floor. A simple majority is necessary for success and, prior to this past November's election, we had 24 of 40 votes. People on both sides of the aisle were with us-but Governor-elect Chris Christie prevailed and the winds of change begin to lessen.
Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts said that the eight hours of testimony that the Senate Judiciary committee had heard earlier was sufficient for the Assembly to be able to make their decision and he refused to release the vote to the Assembly until the upper house had made its decision. National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and Garden State Equality (GSE), the primary voices on the opposing sides, had their work cut out for them and both groups lobbied their constituents vigorously. Then word came down that Senate President Codey was posting the bill for debate and a vote.
Allen and his partner Bill arrived early on January 7 and began lobbying. Gay Activist Alliance in Morris County President Andy Skurna and I carpooled together and formulated GAAMC's statements for whichever outcome we had to deal with. GAAMC is the oldest continually running activist organization in New Jersey and we were everywhere in the building. While Allen and Bill were part of the presence indoors, Andy and I networked with our friends from the press, like Toby Grace and Pete Frycki from Out in Jersey magazine, and with Babs Casbar Siperstein, a superior force in NJ and national politics and passionate advocate for transgender rights. The entire activist community turned out-freedom fighters with decades of experience and those just born as activists traded stories and packed the Senate Chambers in the afternoon for the vote.
The Senate Chambers hold only 100 people, so there were one-two-count 'em-THREE rollover rooms. I was in Committee Room Six, where people occupied every available seat, held up walls, and sat on steps and on oak millwork, as I did. A sea of navy blue GSE shirts engulfed small pockets of the red worn by the NOM people, who also wore white t-shirts with their message-marriage equals one man and one woman-though we know marriage is between two loving people, and we all settled in for more than 90 minutes of debate. State employees we met throughout the day gave us subtle signs of the support they have for us, yet, would it be enough to swing the vote?
Heroes of equality, like S1967 bill sponsors Loretta Weinberg and Ray Lesniak, were among the first to speak. Senate President Codey spoke eloquently about the change marriage equality represents and the fact that it changes nothing in the lives of people who presently have those rights. Senators Nia Gill, Sandra Cunningham and Teresa Ruiz invoked civil rights and not so civil wrongs in discussing the fact that this whole matter is about civil rights, with Ruiz going further and saying she would not reject rights for others that she herself enjoys-it's just not fair.
The opponents of marriage equality, like Senator Gerry Cardinale, agree that Civil Unions don't work and those words may come back to haunt him. Senator Girgenti has also long been a foe of lesbian and gay people having the "m" word, yet the biggest betrayal came from Senator Sean Kean, who spoke of how half of his constituency is lesbian and gay and what an oasis they have made of Ocean Grove and Asbury Park, former resort communities that, until just 15 years ago, were places no one wanted to visit. Yet his reason for voting against equality for more than half of his constituency is that opponents of the S1967 are characterized as bigots, whereas most of us say, "if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then shoot it like a duck and let's have dinner." Kean's damning with faint praise reaction has caused many LGBTI people and allies to plan for major rearrangement of legislators during the next round of primaries. But what about the vote?
We could draw out the suspense but we all already know the result-14 for, 20 against-and for the present, the battle was not ours to win-yet. Activists and rust never sleep and all across the Garden State, organizations like GAAMC and GSE are planning to do battle. Lambda Legal is stepping forward with the same group of people, who prevailed in Lewis vs. Harris and made Civil Unions possible, to work through the courts to complete what the legislature could not, would not bring to fruition.
While equality in several key areas remains in chains-DADT, Trans-inclusive ENDA, Marriage-the NJ activist community and our allies are committed to the advent of equality. Or in Henley's words, "(our) heads are bloody but unbowed."