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Friday, July 01, 2011

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Like many other New Yorkers, I was proud and heartened by the fact that our state has joined the growing number of jurisdictions that now allow same sex couples to marry.  I am thrilled for my friends who can now legally marry in New York, and I look forward to the day in which all Americans enjoy these rights in all fifty states.

 I must admit, however, that when I woke up on Saturday morning and saw this picture, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hands pens my heart sank a bit.  The scene pictured should memorialize a major step forward for equality and gender issues in New York State.  But where, I wondered, were the women?  Where were the New Yorkers of color?   

To be clear, the signing photo features several men key to the bill's success, and they are to be commended for their efforts and courage.  Assemb. Daniel O'Donnell, who led the legislative effort, and Assemb. Matthew Titone are both openly gay representatives in the New York State Assembly.  They are listed as having introduced the bill -- but so is Assemb. Deborah Glick, another openly gay representative.  Several other assembly reps have "introducer" credit and yet more are listed "multi-sponsors" of the bill in the Assembly.  There are several women and minorities on the list.

Also pictured is Sen. Thomas Duane is the only openly gay state senator in New York, and Sen. James Alesi who was the first Republican state senator to pledge his support for the bill.  What about a more diverse group of senators who supported the bill?  Not all members who are women or minorities supported the bill, but the list is long enough to suggest that the photo could have been more inclusive.

It is perhaps, patronizing and backwards to insist on diversity in a picture for its own sake.  If the only people in the picture were those who were most responsible for its success, then it might be demeaning to ask a woman or a minority member of the legislature to join in the signing ceremony for the sake of a diverse image.  I should just appreciate the end result of the bill without dwelling on such trivialities.  The legislation was signed close to midnight after some tense days of bargaining, and my guess is that no one thought too hard about the image projected to the world.

Deep down, however, I can't help but bristle at that photo.  Did the governor's office overlook the participation of women?  Did minorities and women themselves demonstrate a leadership failure?  Answering either question in the affirmative is troubling.  Perhaps the strongest women and minority leaders on this issue came only from outside of the legislature.  For example, Christine Quinn was a major supporter of the legislation, but she is Speaker of the New York City Council, and therefore would not necessarily be a part of the signing since she is not a part of state government.

No matter what the explanation, the photo smacks of a bygone era -- one in which the white men of a polity are kind enough to bestow civil rights upon the rest of us.  Perhaps this picture is a reminder that as we celebrate this step forward, there are still many ways in which we can work to become a more diverse and inclusive society.

Posted by Robin Effron on July 1, 2011 at 10:33 AM in Current Affairs, Gender, Law and Politics | Permalink


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This is an interesting post. As I watched the process, the change to the marriage law occurred because same-sex marriage was framed in traditionalist terms: as extending an existing institution and all of its responsibilities in order to provide security to couples in committed relationships and their children in ways that will benefit society as a whole. If the proponents of the bill had framed their arguments in terms of "diversity" or in terms of "gender issues," the bill probably wouldn't have passed. So (leaving aside the question of who played an important enough role in the legislative process to deserve to be in the picture), perhaps the image actually gets the history right.

Posted by: Jason Mazzone | Jul 3, 2011 9:24:10 PM

Professor Effron,

I am a white male who has been denied at least one job in legal academia (my dream) because I am a white male. Not to get into the details, but I basically learned that I was the person most qualified for the job in the opinion of the committee, but it went to someone else because they would better contribute to the "diversity and inclusiveness" of which you speak.

It did not seem like a "step forward" to me.

Posted by: AnotherAnon | Jul 1, 2011 8:30:04 PM

The picture makes a lot of sense when you look at how LGBT groups have focused on advancing civil rights for the mostly privileged (e.g., same sex marriage) at the expense of other civil rights that affect the disadvantaged (e.g., GENDA).

Same sex marriage in New York is a landmark civil rights achievement. We should celebrate it.

That picture is a reminder that LGBT civil rights being recognized are still mostly enjoyed by those with privilege, and the protections still lag for others when it comes to employment protection (or prisoner's rights or health care...).

Posted by: Anon | Jul 1, 2011 4:58:57 PM

I believe Assemb. Deborah Glick was there at the ceremony but wasn't in that particular photograph. I'm pretty sure she was standing up with the governor when he spoke that day in this press conference(see the video here http://www.governor.ny.gov/sl2/video_archive).

In any event, it certainly sounds like a pretty diverse crowd once you know the facts that you provided. For a Democrat governor's signing ceremony for a bill concerning same sex marriage in a blue state, this one photograph has five guys. Of these, one is a Republican and three are openly gay.

Posted by: anymouse | Jul 1, 2011 2:04:17 PM

Prof. Effron,

Thank you very much for your response. At the same time, I'm not sure I understand: If having zero women/minorities in a picture of six people is clearly wrong because of those numbers, then I am not sure why it isn't a numbers game already. In any event, thanks for responding (at least in part) to my question.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 1, 2011 1:28:22 PM

Thanks for your comments. As I said in the post, I am hesitant to insist on inclusion for the sake of appearances, and therefore, there's not a "numbers" game by which there would be a "right" answer for inclusion in the picture.
But, if we're wondering about evidence of a pattern of marginalization, I leave you with this: The senate version of the bill had 19 sponsors, 6 of whom are women (I did not look up which of the 19 are persons of color, but this could be done by checking individual bios. The sponsorship is reported here: http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/13808/19-senate-sponsors-for-gay-marriage-bill/
The assembly bill also had a long list of introducers and co-sponsors including 5 female "introducers." An almost correct version of this list is publicly available at http://www.votesmart.org/issue_keyvote_detail.php?cs_id=35653. For the final list, check the bill on Westlaw or Lexis (I couldn't reproduce it here).
I will leave it to the able members of the prawfs community to decide how much of a pattern that really is in either direction.

Posted by: Robin | Jul 1, 2011 1:12:59 PM

Professor Effron,

Just to help us understand, do you have a sense of how many women/minorities you would have needed to see in the picture before it would no longer make you bristle? For example, what if it was 5 white men and 1 white woman? Or perhaps 5 white men and one Asian man? Would that be enough?

Posted by: Anon | Jul 1, 2011 12:53:31 PM

"It is perhaps, patronizing and backwards to insist on diversity in a picture for its own sake."

This, I think, is basically right. If there are women and minorities who contributed more to the bill then the men in the picture, then maybe there's prima facie evidence of discrimination in assigning credit. But it's silly, in my opinion, to insist that every bill be actively supported by a certain arbitrarily diverse group. I don't see how "Did minorities and women themselves demonstrate a leadership failure?" is troubling when it comes to a single bill in a single state. If no female or minority legislators took leadership positions on *this specific bill*, maybe it's because they were leading on other (possibly more important) issues.

Basically, what I'm saying is this: without evidence of a pattern of marginalization of certain groups of legislators on important issues, this seems like much ado about nothing.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 1, 2011 12:26:59 PM

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