As has been the case in almost all places, New Jersey’s gay rights struggle has had a long (and often perilous) history. From its earliest days, when Manny’s Den, a popular gay discotheque, fought for its right to serve homosexual patrons, to Governor Jim McGreevey’s now-infamous declaration (“I am a gay American”), the charge towards marriage equality has made great strides in recent years, despite numerous hiccups. Though victory seemed to be at hand on several occasions, disappointment and false hope were recurring trends for advocates of marriage reform; it wasn’t until a recent court ruling that same-sex marriage became the law of the land.
“I am very delighted about today’s decision by the [New Jersey] Supreme Court,” former Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson said last week. “They truly showed leadership by letting freedom ring today across our state.”
Asbury Park, immortalized in the lyrics of musicians like Bruce Springsteen, has long been known for its vibrant gay community, which has placed the seaside city at the center of the continued controversy regarding same-sex marriage in the Garden State. Almost ten years ago, Mayor Johnson found himself a witness to history when he was present for the state’s first renegade same-sex marriage (between Ric Best & Louis Navarrete), which was the center of intense media attention when the government invalidated their union as illegal.
“I was very proud to serve as best man to the very first same sex couple married in New Jersey at Asbury Park City Hall in 2004,” said Mayor Johnson. “I am even prouder today to be a resident of New Jersey at this historical moment.”
Mayor Johnson is not alone in that sentiment. In a state where legalized equality seemed imminent for so long, yet suffered so many setbacks, the announcement that same-sex couples could marry as of 12:01 this morning was reason for celebration. In Asbury Park, newly weds lined the boardwalk; in Newark, Mayor Cory Booker, recently elected to the United States Senate, performed his first wedding ceremonies; he had abstained from doing so since taking office out of protest for the inequalities in the law.
Asbury Park Councilwoman Amy Quinn was among the first to be married after the stroke of midnight: “It feels amazing to be married in my own state, in my own town,” she said. “Asbury Park continued to be at the forefront of marriage equality and I’m thrilled we’re one of the few towns in New Jersey whose commitment to equality made it possible for gay and lesbian couples to get married at 12:01am.”
It has been a troubled, and often times politicized, road to this victory. In 2009, despite Democratic Governor Jon Corzine’s support, a same-sex marriage bill failed to pass the State Legislature, a move some felt was intended to put incoming Governor Chris Christie in the perilous position of opposing gay rights. Indeed, the Republican vetoed a similar measure last year, arguing the voters should decide how to define marriage, not the Senate and Assembly.
With obvious presidential ambitions, Governor Christie has had to play a careful balancing act. Being an elected official in a socially liberal, traditionally “blue” state, often conflicts with the reality that any future White House run will first have to clear conservative primaries like Iowa, where Tea Party politicians enjoy great popularity and the “culture wars” still rage. Criticism of the Governor’s presidential aspirations, particularly with respect to his views on social matters, has become one of the cornerstones of challenger Barbara Buono’s gubernatorial campaign; it has yet to be seen what impact the legalization of same-sex marriage will have on the Democrat’s candidacy,
Then, on September 27th, a superior court ruled prohibition of marriage equality violated the rights of homosexuals. Governor Christie initially threatened to challenge the ruling and voiced support for allowing voters to cast their ballots on the issue. His logic: if the majority of New Jersey favored marriage equality, as the Democrats claimed, then why not allow them to add legitimacy to a change in the law by demonstrating it at the polls? The State Supreme Court, however, denied Governor Christie’s attempts to have the implementation of same-sex marriage delayed; today, he announced the withdrawal his appeal. Thus, as of this writing, it seems that gay marriage is not only legal in the Garden State; it is also here to stay.
How this will shape the gubernatorial and state legislative races, now entering their final days, is still unclear; however, for the couples who have waited so long to be able to join in matrimony, all that matters is the present and the LGBT rights movement’s latest victory.