The Ithaca 50 and the early days of marriage equality in Ithaca

By Mary Ford and Rachel Wolfgang

On June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges was announced in a windfall Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage in the United States.

(Link to interactive timeline: http://bit.ly/2hCUbWr)

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The decision was the result of a decades-long struggle toward marriage equality, with many smaller court decisions along the way leading to the federal legalization of gay marriage. One such court case occurred in Ithaca, New York, over a decade ago, when twenty-five gay couples sued the City of Ithaca for the right to be married by the town. According to Donna Eschenbrenner, the archivist of The History Center in Tompkins County, the case became known as the Ithaca 50 lawsuit because of the number of couples involved.

One of the lead attorneys on the case, Mariette Geldenhuys, has been working in the Ithaca area for many years. She said the Ithaca 50 lawsuit came about at a time when people were a becoming more open to gay marriage, but there was still significant government opposition to the idea.

“What happened in 2004 is that Mayor Gavin Newsom at the time, in San Francisco, and Jason West, the mayor of New Paltz, New York at the time, issued marriage licenses which were not at that time authorized by California or New York State law,” Geldenhuys said. “So then several same sex couples in Ithaca urged the mayor at the time Caroline Petersen to also issue licenses.”

According to an article in the Ithaca Voice, Peterson and the City Attorney, “decided to adopt a unique approach.” The encouraged couples to apply for licenses, which the city would then deny on the grounds that gay marriage was illegal in the State of New York.

However, as Peterson told the Voice, this action was only the beginning for these couples — not the end.

“This put us and the couples in the position to sue the City and the State of New York,” Peterson said. And that is exactly what they did. Organized by a team of pro bono lawyers, including Geldenhuys, a grassroots movement took root across Ithaca.

“A joke about it is it’s one of the only times a municipality has invited people to sue them,” Geldenhuys said. “Then we had to figure out, ‘Okay, how do we do this?’ … Usually with impact litigation, there’s very careful screening and vetting of who’s going to be the perfect plaintiff — we didn’t do that. We basically just said anyone who wanted to participate, here’s the deadline, here’s what’s involved, this is what we need from you.”

Geldenhuys said by the deadline, exactly 25 couples had responded, adding up to 50 people. That is how the Ithaca 50 lawsuit got its unofficial name. Jason Hungerford and his partner Jason Seymour were principal organizers, and because they set up and tested out the online form with their own names, Hungerford said they became the real name of the case: “Seymour vs. Holcomb.”

The suit made its way to the appellate court in New York State, while parallel measures were filed by the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County in support of the Ithaca 50. Several other marriage equality cases were being fought around the same time, and in an in-depth analysis of the movement at the History Center, Geldenhuys said the Ithaca 50 legal team coordinated with the attorneys of these other cases. Although the appeal was denied, Geldenhuys said the Ithaca 50 lawsuit signalled an important turning point in the long fight for LGBT rights.

“Ithaca — in part because of this lawsuit, but also just really looking out in the LGBT world — it’s seen as an affirming, welcoming place,” Geldenhuys said. “I know many couples who specifically chose to move to Ithaca because they were looking for a place that would be welcoming, including the lead plaintiffs.”

It was not until June 2011 that New York State overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and allowed same-sex couples to be married; it was not until 2015 that gay marriage was nationally legalized. Geldenhuys said it was important to note that progress came as a result of many years of hard work by activists and lawyers such as herself in the LGBT community.

“People who come to the community more recently and who say ‘Ithaca is this great LGBT place,’ it didn’t just happen that way overnight,” she said. “Many of us have been working on making our community more LGBT-friendly over many many years, and back in the late ’80s early ’90s, it was not a comfortable place to be out in general.”

She also warned that though Ithaca is generally an accepting place, and has an important place in the history of LGBT rights, the surrounding areas are often more openly discriminatory. Even in the city of Ithaca progress still needs to be made, particularly in supporting the transgender community.

“I think when we talk about LGBT, we tend to lump the LG and B with the T, and neglect the T. And trans people are subjected to constant harassment. I think Ithaca is one of the friendlier place in terms of harassment,” Geldenhuys said. “Over time, the situation has improved dramatically, but there are still instances of homophobic harassment every day.”

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