The Rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBT rights. Courtesy of Wikimedia

ITHACA, N.Y. — The History Center in Tompkins County has embarked on an exploration of Ithaca’s unique role in the path to nationwide marriage equality.

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The “Ithaca 50” lawsuit, in which 25 local same-sex couples sued the city and the state, is among the landmark events documented by the Center. Key witnesses of the lawsuit, including attorneys and the lead plaintiff, have shared perspectives ranging from the lawsuit’s origins to its continued effects on their lives today.

The Lawyer’s Point of View

The City of Ithaca was one of the first municipalities in 1984 to pass a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Local attorney Mariette Geldenhuys recalled how she and other LGBT activists decided that if the City could do it, so could Tompkins County. This law, known as “Local Law C,” became a major topic of contention in the community, and failed its first attempt at passage, in July 1991.

“So we all rallied and on a second vote in December 1991 [“Local Law C”] passed in a full high school cafeteria patrolled by the Sheriff’s deputies who were walking up and down the aisle between the ‘pro’ and the ‘con’ section,” Geldenhuys said.

The Rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBT rights. Courtesy of Wikimedia

But the real turning point was 2004, when two mayors, San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom and New Paltz’s Jason West, became the first in the country to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It is in this context that Ithaca played a crucial role with the famous ‘Ithaca 50’ lawsuit.

Geldenhuys was a pro bono attorney representing the 25 couples who were plaintiffs in the case, also known as Seymour v. Holkomb, which reflected the growing momentum and as well as ongoing obstacles to marriage equality.

“This was a couple of years after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling for marriage rights and we were very hopeful that as it went with Massachusetts so it would go with us, but no, didn’t happen that way,” Geldenhuys said.

The Mayor’s Point of View

As a mayor in a state where gay marriage was not legal in 2004, Carolyn Peterson faced a rising local controversy and became the unlikely originator of the Ithaca 50 lawsuit.

“It’s 2004, and I’ve been mayor just a few weeks, and there’s a kind of tsunami coming, with Gavin Newsom performing weddings in San Francisco and then Jason West in New Paltz doing the same thing,” Peterson said.

See related: 20 years ago, Ithaca was in national spotlight for radical idea: Supporting gay marriage

Former Mayor Peterson

With emails and phone calls coming in rapidly, Peterson needed to make a decision. She could not issue marriage licenses because the New York State Department of Health was not going to sign up off on them. So after much discussion, Peterson and the City Attorney, Martin Luster, decided to adopt a unique approach.

Peterson and Luster announced at a press conference in March that the City was going to accept the same-sex couples’ marriage applications, bundle them together and send them to the State Department of Health in Albany, where they would be rejected, paving the way for an unusual strategy.

“This put us and the couples in the position to sue the City and the State of New York,” Peterson said. This became the ‘Ithaca 50’ lawsuit, which was unique because the City of Ithaca joined the plaintiffs in the claim that the marriage prohibition was unconstitutional.

The Lead Plaintiff’s Point Of View

In 2004, Jason Hungerford and his now-husband, Jason Seymour, were newcomers to Ithaca. They decided to go to City Hall and see what the new mayor had to say about marriage equality, and were impressed by Peterson’s creative approach.

A week later, they attended a town hall meeting organized by the Ithaca LGBT Task Force, and offered to help gather plaintiffs for the case.

“We volunteered to quickly put together a website form so that people could submit their names online if they wanted to participate,” Hungerford said.

As dedicated as the couple was to the cause, they did not expect to see Seymour’s name go down in history affixed to the case.

“We handed over the names to the pro bono attorneys, including Mariette [Geldenhuys], in the order that people submitted them online. Our names were first because we built the form and tested it […] So that’s how the case became known as Seymour v. Holcomb,” Hungerford said.

Though the case was eventually defeated in the Court of Appeals two years later, Hungerford said one of his fondest memories was being in court and “feeling very proud that symbolically, realistically and physically there was the City on [their] side” on the long road to marriage equality.  

What Is Left to Be Done: The Struggle Evolves

In the years that followed, Hungerford joined the board of directors of the Ithaca LGBT Task Force. Geldenhuys was appointed to the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on LGBT People and Law and lobbied intensively for the marriage equality bill, which was defeated in the state senate in 2010, before finally passing in June 2011.

“Change didn’t just happen, it took people to push for that change,” Hungerford said.

Much remains to be done, including the implementation of marriage equality legislation, along with other key challenges facing the LGBT community, such as discrimination against transgender people, suicide and homelessness among LGBT youth, employment and housing discrimination and barriers to healthcare.

“We certainly deserve the joy of the celebration for the civil rights advance, but we need to really stay engaged and keep at this,” Geldenhuys said.

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