Joanna Solmonsohn and her partner Elizabeth Morena. (July 20, 2012)

Joanna Solmonsohn and her partner Elizabeth Morena. (July 20, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Gaitley Stevenson-Mathews did not hesitate this time. He was shopping for car insurance in recent months and, when asked if he was married, answered "yes," unlike in previous years when New York did not recognize same-sex marriages.

Insurance costs weren't on his mind when he married Jim Stevenson-Mathews at a Glen Cove City Hall ceremony a year ago, making them among the first of thousands of gay and lesbian New Yorkers who have married since the state's Marriage Equality Act went into effect on July 24, 2011.

But the legal recognition of their union for even the most mundane transactions represents a shift in public policy and attitudes, the men said.

"The having to explain goes away," said Gaitley Stevenson-Mathews, 51, an acting coach. "To be able to check the box 'married' like everybody else, not 'domestic partner,' 'married to a man,' 'married but he is a guy' . . . That's how it should be."

Many same-sex couples and advocates, still awash in the aura of historic change, are marking the law's first anniversary and feeling optimistic about the long-term prospects for equality.

Marrying in their home state "was an important rite of passage," said Jim Stevenson-Mathews, 62, head gardener for a private estate. "This didn't change anything about who we are, but I think it validated it in a public way." They first married in Connecticut in 2010, but remarried in New York at the first opportunity -- shortly after midnight on the Sunday the law went into effect.

More than 3,000 same-sex couples have married on Long Island, in Westchester County and upstate New York since the law passed. Similar statistics have not been released for New York City, but advocates estimate that thousands of gay and lesbian couples held nuptials in the city in the past year.

"We have seen thousands of loving, committed, same-sex couples being able to stand before friends and families and being able to pledge their love for each other," said Lynn Faria, interim director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, an advocacy group on issues affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers.

New York's law -- making it the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage -- stoked activists across the country, where the battle for state and federal rights continues.

"The passage of marriage equality in New York in 2011 was really a tipping point," said Stuart Gaffney, spokesman for Marriage Equality USA, a national advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif. "The pace of change has only accelerated in the past year, with the president siding with marriage equality and court after court deciding that marriage discrimination is unconstitutional."

Some religious and political groups see same-sex marriage as infringing on religious liberties and threatening a sacred institution.

The New York State Catholic Conference lobbies for the defense of traditional marriage at the national level. And political conservatives use the issue as a litmus test.

"We have not and will not support anybody who voted to destroy traditional marriage," said Michael R. Long, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State. "If elected officials would have put this on the ballot, New Yorkers would have voted it down as people have in other states."

Artie Guilmette and Jim Lawrence of Coram said they had waited long enough to marry after 54 years together. Guilmette, a U.S. Navy veteran, and Lawrence, a U.S. Army veteran, were the first to walk down the aisle when 56 couples married at Bethpage State Park upon the law's passage.

"It's part of history and to me it was important to be part of history as a witness and a participant," Lawrence said.

But had they been able to marry years earlier, they would have had a better chance to adopt, they said.

"Having our home on Long Island, we would have liked to have shared it with at least one child," Guilmette said.

Joanna Solmonsohn, 37, and Elizabeth Morena, 27, of Brentwood married Sunday in a waterside wedding in Lindenhurst.

Their parents walked them down the aisle, their rabbi performed the traditional rites, a soloist sang traditional Hebrew prayers, and about 140 family and friends attended.

Solmonsohn, an advocate for the GLBT community, said she and Morena are grateful for the opportunity to have their dream wedding and rights such as joint medical benefits and the chance to own property as a married couple.

"There's something special about being able to get married," she said. "Part of it is knowing that you will be able to take care of each other."

Even with same-sex marriage legal in New York, some couples and advocates said they need to continue pushing to expand and protect their rights. Dozens of states ban those unions and the U.S. government defines marriage as "only a legal union between one man and one woman."

Same-sex spouses have to file separate federal tax returns as "single," and don't qualify for Social Security survivor benefits. They must pay estate taxes when inheriting from a deceased spouse and, in the case of binational couples, cannot petition an immigrant spouse for U.S. residency or citizenship.

Gaining marriage equality in New York was an incomplete victory, advocates said.

"We have won this fight" in the state, said David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island GLBT Services Network, who is marrying his partner of 11 years in September, "but we realize that we are not fully equal as American citizens."


New York's marriage equality law


New York became the sixth, and largest, state to legalize same-sex marriage when the New York State Senate and Assembly voted and Gov.

Andrew M. Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act. It went into effect at midnight on

July 24, 2011.

The act declares marriage "a fundamental human right" for couples and ordered that marriages should be valid "regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex."

As of June, 3,037 same-sex couples had married on Long Island, Westchester County and upstate areas. They made up 6.4 percent of all marriages for those parts of the state. New York City has not released same-sex marriage statistics.

The other states that have legalized same-sex marriages are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. The District of

Columbia also permits same-sex marriages. Maryland and Washington have approved marriage-equality laws, but they are on hold because of pending referendums for the November election. Maine voters will vote on a marriage-equality referendum in November, while Minnesota voters will cast their ballots on a same-sex marriage ban.

Sources: New York State, Marriage Equality USA

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