Ithaca City Hall and Mayor’s office, 108 E Green St

Ithaca LGBTQ History Walking Tour

Ithaca City Hall and Mayor’s office, 108 E Green St

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services, Ithaca College


Ithaca is nationally known as a welcoming community for LGBTQ people. But this was not always the case. The current community is the result of decades of activism by LGBTQ residents, dating back to a time when being “out” in our community was far less accepted than it is now. In some instances, it was very risky or even downright dangerous.

In 1984, the City of Ithaca was one of the first municipalities in the United States to pass a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. New York State did not pass the sexual orientation nondiscrimination act (SONDA) until 2002. SONDA did not include gender identity and expression, unlike the City and County laws, which provide protection for transgender persons. The law that does so, the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA), was not passed in New York State until 2019.

In 1990 Ithaca also adopted a law that gave same-sex couples the right to register with the city as domestic partners. This registration was largely symbolic, but provided proof of domestic partnership for the increasing number of employers who extended health insurance benefits to same-sex partners, including the City of Ithaca, Cornell University, Tompkins County, the Ithaca City School District and others.

Current Mayor Svante Myrick’s support for LGBTQ people includes signing proclamations declaring National Coming Out Day, International Day of Transgender Visibility, and International Pronouns Day, as well as working locally and nationally to advance equity and inclusion. In 2017 Myrick had the Pride Flag first raised over this building, saying, "I've ordered the Pride Flag to fly above City Hall. It will remain there the entire month of June in recognition of LGBT history month - as an appreciation of the immeasurable impact the LGBT community has had on Ithaca, and as a reminder of the horrors caused by unchecked discrimination."

Mariette Geldenhuys shared some of Ithaca's history of marriage equality with the Tompkins County History Center, "In 1995, when I was City Attorney for the City of Ithaca, a gay couple sought a marriage license at the City Clerk’s office and sued the City when the application was denied. In consultation with national organizations working for LGBT civil rights, we reached out to the couple and asked them not to pursue legal action because we were convinced that the time was not right to bring this challenge to the courts. They proceeded anyway. The City was supportive of the couple’s claim but wanted to avoid a negative ruling on the issue of same-sex marriage. The local Supreme Court ruled against the couple, stating that same-sex couples did not have the right to marry. The couple then appealed to the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Storrs v. Holcomb."

Geldenhuys continued, "The oral argument on the case was a horrendous experience. I had to use every ounce of self-restraint not to express my dismay at the conduct of the presiding judge -- the marks of my fingernails are probably still in the counsel’s table in that courtroom. At one point, the presiding judge said: “What are they going to want to do next -- marry an animal?” He grinned and looked around at his colleagues on the bench, none of whom said a word. The only bright spot was that the court dismissed the case on the basis that the State should have been included as a necessary party and did not rule on the merits of the same-sex marriage claim, so we achieved our goal of avoiding a negative precedent.'

"For the remainder of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, advocacy continued on the State level to try to get SONDA passed. There was very little legislative support for LGBT issues in the New York State Senate. Even as other states moved towards consideration of civil unions and domestic partnerships, the legal outlook for LGBT people in New York remained bleak.

In 2004, the issue of same-sex marriage burst onto the scene again in Ithaca, following the issuance of marriage licenses by mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco, California and Jason West in New Paltz, New York. Same-sex couples in Ithaca urged then-mayor Carolyn Peterson to follow suit and issue marriage licenses. In consultation with Marty Luster, the City Attorney at the time, the City decided on a different strategy: the Mayor let same-sex couples know that the City was supportive of their claim for marriage rights but that the city clerk was constrained by the directive of the State Department of Health not to issue the marriage licenses. She encouraged couples to apply for marriage licenses, which would be denied, and promised the City’s support if the couples then sued the City and the State for a court order that same-sex couples should be granted the right to marry. See the photo of Mayor Carolyn Peterson thanking community supporters, 2004.

This is how the “Ithaca 50” lawsuit came about. Couples who wanted to sue needed legal representation. Three of us volunteered to represent them pro bono: Elizabeth Bixler, Richard Stumbar, and I. The attorneys met with potential plaintiffs, explained what would be involved, and set a deadline for couples to come forward. This inclusive, democratic way of selecting plaintiffs is unique among all the same sex marriage court cases. Usually, LGBT advocacy organizations carefully select a handful of couples to be the plaintiffs. In other instances, lawyers represented an individual couple in a marriage equality or related claim. To my knowledge, the “Ithaca 50”, consisting of twenty-five same-sex couples, was by far the largest group of plaintiffs in any marriage equality case. Jason Seymour and Jason Hungerford took the lead in organizing the group."

Previous Mayor Carolyn Peterson (2004 - 2011) voiced overwhelming support for marriage equality. On March 1, 2004 the newly elected mayor held a press conference to announce a new policy on this issue. Before a standing-room-only crowd in City Hall Council Chambers, Peterson announced that same-sex marriage license applications would be accepted by the City Clerk's office and forwarded to the State Health Department for individual review. The Health Department has authority over issuance of marriage licenses in New York State, and does not allow them to be issued to same-sex couples, so this provided the opportunity for couples to sue when the licenses were not approved. City Attorney Marty Luster also explained how the city would support the couples: "If there is a lawsuit brought by (anyone) who is denied a license by the state of New York, the city will join with you in the lawsuit in seeking to overturn that decision." In addition, Peterson announced that the city would immediately begin to recognize all same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions.

Mayor Peterson performed many same sex marriages after same sex marriage was legalized in New York State by the Legislature in 2011. As Mariette Geldenhuys explained, "This allowed same-sex couples in New York to marry, but their marriages were still not recognized on the Federal level due to the Defense of Marriage Act. The portion of DOMA which prohibited federal recognition was struck down by the United States Supreme Court in Windsor v. United States in 2013. The Windsor decision led to a proliferation of marriage rights cases in state and federal courts, eventually culminating in Obergefell v. Hodges, decided in June 2015, which finally extended marriage rights to same-sex couples everywhere in the United States. To the outside observer, it may look like marriage equality was won very quickly, based on the fast pace of change since the Windsor decision in 2013. However, the Windsor and Obergefell cases were the culmination of decades of activism, legal advocacy and relentless hard work by LGBT people and lawyers working for LGBT civil rights over many decades. Tompkins County holds a prominent place in this history."

This point of interest is part of the tour: Ithaca LGBTQ History Walking Tour


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