Acknowledging the Gay
Part of Gay Marriage
By JOSEPH BERGER,
NYTimes on the Web, June 19, 2006
Yonkers, NY June 16 -- IT was
a small gesture, worth little or nothing in dollars and cents. A legally
married gay couple still has to pay $150 for a family pass to a Westchester
County pool, exactly what two unattached straight adults pay.
But they qualify as a family — and that is another milestone for gay residents
of Westchester. A county shaped around the needs of families declared this
month that gay people married in Massachusetts or one of a handful of countries,
like Canada and the Netherlands, that accept gay vows are a family too, at least
for the humdrum purposes of using the county's parks or shelters.
Michael Sabatino Jr. and Robert Voorheis have long considered themselves a
family. It seems patronizing to have to provide the details, but they have
lived together 28 years, the past 7 with a cat named Purrky in a 1921
center-hall Colonial in northwest Yonkers. They plant roses in the front
yard and hostas around the 200-year-old copper beech. Their rooms are
filled with hackneyed vacation photographs.
Their neighbors invite them over for children's birthdays, and they return the
favors with their own parties. They have an annual Thanksgiving dinner for
20 guests, including Mr. Sabatino's mother, Raffaella, and his cousins.
They are corny enough to have held their October 2003 wedding at Niagara Falls —
the Canadian side — where Mr. Sabatino's mother gave them away.
Like other spouses, Mr. Voorheis, an interior designer, seems a touch vexed by
how much his spouse, an owner of a laboratory instrument company, has to travel.
But Mr. Voorheis, 51, and Mr. Sabatino, 55, are talking about retiring to New
"As you get older and don't want to drive anymore, you've got subways, buses,
taxis — everything is right there," Mr. Voorheis said, dropping the bromides of
a weary commuter.
They are pleased that County Executive Andrew J. Spano, by executive order, gave
their marriage his imprimatur.
"You expect the city to be progressive — it's not always the case, but you
expect it," said Mr. Voorheis, who was brought up in Alabama. "To have a
bedroom community like Westchester, where you don't have a gay ghetto, do that —
it's an affirmation that we will be treated as an equal part of the community."
The county's roster of declared gay couples would not fill a village as small as
Ardsley. In the 2000 census, 2,000 couples — roughly split between male
and female — identified themselves as same-sex partners. But homosexuals
have been making themselves heard. Mr. Spano has on staff a liaison to gay
men and lesbians, Laura Newman, and an advisory board on which Mr. Sabatino
sits. The county has already extended health benefits to the domestic
partners of county employees, and its hospital allows gay partners the same
visiting privileges as heterosexual spouses.
But by recognizing gay marriages performed elsewhere, as places like New York
City , Rochester, Buffalo, Albany and Nyack already do, Mr. Spano has added
momentum to the movement to accord gay relationships the same rights as straight
ones. And he did it on the day the Senate threw a bone to President Bush's
evangelical base by voting on a Constitutional amendment declaring that only a
union of a man and a woman constitutes marriage. That piece of theater — a
hollow and half-hearted ploy that had no chance of passage — brought on the same
needless indignities Mr. Voorheis and Mr. Sabatino experienced three years ago,
when a Roman Catholic monsignor kicked them out of a Bronx church choir after
newspapers publicized their marriage.
Yes, Mr. Spano's executive order also appeased a potential voting bloc within
his Democratic base, but at least it acknowledged the way things are in the 21st
century. By all accounts, Westchester's 4,000 gay partners have not
experienced much overt prejudice, have been able to buy houses and form
friendships with cul-de-sac neighbors.
"Fortunately they live up to the stereotype and have a nice house, do the
landscaping and keep up property values," Ms. Newman said. "I've had a few
situations where people have had problems with their neighbors — harassment,
property damage, name-calling. But I'm sure many straight people have
problems with their neighbors."
Traditionally, suburbs have not coped well with difference. They tend to
cluster around a particular level of prosperity, race, sometimes religion.
But Westchester is now more diverse and increasingly populated by grown-ups who
went to schools that had gay clubs and gay-straight alliances. Mr.
Sabatino says he knows of 10 gay couples in his enclave, and the prices of
center-hall Colonials have not fallen.
Anti-gay activists like James C. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, a national
group based in Colorado Springs, argue that homosexuals are seeking "the utter
destruction of the family." But with one beau geste Mr. Spano shored up
the family in Westchester. A new group of swimmers will be applying for
those family passes to the pool.