The lawmaker behind New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage recalls the ‘blood and guts’ it took to pass it 10 years ago

New York Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell speaks on the floor of the assembly surrounded by LGBT pride flags.
New York Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, D-Manhattan. Office of Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell
  • NY Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell spoke with Insider for the 10th anniversary of legal gay marriage.
  • He introduced the bill and whipped votes for five years before it passed.
  • “I put my blood and guts into making this happen,” he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ten years ago today, New York became the sixth state to legalize same sex marriage.

This was before the landmark 2015 Obergefell Supreme Court case that legalized it nationwide, and after states such as California attempted to legalize it only to have the law reversed.

New York Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, a Democrat who has represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Morningside Heights neighborhoods since 2003, introduced the bill and was responsible for whipping the votes in the lower chamber. O’Donnell and his partner were plaintiffs in cases trying to get the state to enact marriage equality laws. But he was also chipping away at it for years in the legislature, finding openings and concessions to bring more Democrats on board.

The landmark bill passed and was signed into law on June 24, 2011 and took effect a month later.

O’Donnell spoke with Insider about how he helped get the bill over the finish line, reflecting on the progress made over the past decade and what younger generations should know about the struggle for marriage equality.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Insider’s Jake Lahut: What did it feel like in the early years when you were in the Assembly, when some states legalized gay marriage and there were civil union laws on the books, but public opinion was still against it?

O’Donnell: I always thought it would get over the finish line at some point. Other states primarily passed their marriage equality laws under court order. My now husband and I were plaintiffs in the marriage lawsuits. We were looking for the court to do that. The court didn’t do that, they said you have to go convince the legislature.

Civil unions, or civil partnerships, turned out to be a very big failure, particularly as it relates to medical care. Because if you get in a car accident, two people are presented and one can talk and one can’t, saying “he’s my partner” doesn’t carry the same understanding of what that means – he can be your law partner, right? So the word we use is married, or spouse, or husband, or wife, and that really was required. I knew it was an uphill battle, and I had a lot of convincing to do, but thankfully I turned out to be pretty convincing.

JL: Were there any turning points you started to see?

O’Donnell: Well the first vote we took in the Assembly was in 2007. We got the bill in April, and there were only 24 yes votes. By June, 85 of my colleagues voted yes. That was a combination of [Assemblymember] Deborah Glick and I going person to person and making the case that that was the right thing to do.

Additionally, I sent out weekly communications to all of my colleagues on a variety of subjects. I sent out polling information. I sent out legal arguments. I sent out oral arguments. And all of them ended the same way: John [my future husband] and I appreciate you taking the time to consider this.

I realized when I got to the Assembly that while there were other openly gay colleagues, they really didn’t bring their relationship into their work. And I knew that if I really wanted them to see me as an equal, I needed to do that. For the first vote, we had six undecideds.

So the speaker [Sheldon Silver] said to me, “What happens to the undecideds?” I said, “They all go with me.” And he looked at me like, really? But they did. And part of that reason was I had made the argument personal to them. So it was uncomfortable for my colleagues to vote against me rather than uncontrolled to vote against them.

JL: What’s your recollection of the role Gov. Andrew Cuomo played in these negotiations? He often touts marriage equality as one of his top accomplishments.

O’Donnell: When he was attorney general, he did absolutely nothing to help, but he expressed support. And when he became governor, he certainly did, but he’s a man who will take credit for the sun coming up.

So in the end, was he helpful in delivering Senate votes? Of course he was. But the truth was, as I said to the New York Times reporter the day it was about to pass, when a boulder rolls down a mountain, it’s a story. But the real story is who pushed it up the mountain in the first place.

Deborah [Glick] and I, along with a few others – please remember, between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of New Yorkers who were in favor of marriage equality went from the thirties – something 35% to 37% – to 52% to 54%. And that really was a whole cultural thing. It was “Will and Grace,” it was the perception of gay people in your families. There are a ton of things that account for that, and it gave people who were open-minded but afraid of their electorate the possibility of voting yes.

Man waves rainbow flag on first day of legalized same-sex marriage in New York.
Steven Green waves a rainbow flag in support of same sex marriage near the Manhattan City Clerk’s office in New York City on the first day of legalization of gay marriage in New York State on Sunday, July 24, 2011. Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

JL: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask about next. In terms of public opinion and the turnaround you’re describing, have you seen anything else like it?

O’Donnell: Two years ago I marched in the gay Pride parade, and I gave my sticker to a handsome young man, and he said to me, “Well what have you ever done?” I said, “I passed marriage equality.” He said, “You what? You had to pass that?” Okay. So that’s more than a little hurtful, I can assure you.

I put my blood and guts into making this happen. I exposed my family to a lot of things. I got death threats. As the expression goes, success has a million mothers and failure is an orphan. I have been to more fundraising events from more organizations who take credit for marriage equality passing, some of whom did not do a God damn thing.

So legislation, the first thing you have to learn is you have to learn how to count. Can you count? Because we need 76 votes in my house. So once the first vote was taken, it was my job to hold onto those votes, which is a very different art than getting them.

JL: How so?

O’Donnell: Well I had to be nice to people, some of whom I didn’t like! [Laughs.] They would say to me, “Well this is really important to me.” And I would think, well that’s a stupid idea, but I can’t vote against what they want because they are taking this big vote for me.

So for five years, all I did was marriage, and I saw everyone through the prism of whether they were supporting my equality or they weren’t.

JL: What lessons are there to be learned for younger activists today who were just kids at the time? Or are there things you think they’re maybe less willing to embrace?

O’Donnell: No, I don’t think they’re not willing to embrace them. I think they have no sense of history. I know highly educated young gays who don’t understand the history of AIDS, and when the pandemic started, I hadn’t felt that kind of terror and panic since the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Because that cancer was affecting a community who society at large either dismisses or hates, nothing was done, and that provoked quite a bit of anger.

And if you go back to Stonewall, Stonewall was a riot started by Black trans women who were sick and tired of being beaten by the police. It wasn’t – it didn’t start so pretty, let me put it that way. So I think there’s a lack of general knowledge on what it took, what it took to survive, what it took to be brave during those times. When I first got to Albany, I had colleagues say “I don’t know any gay people.” And I would say “Well, do you go out of your house?” But there was this culture where uncle Johnny shared a house with uncle Tony, and, you know, no one talked about what that was when they all knew what it was.

No judgement on that subject, but a lot of work, a lot of time.