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New Paltz remembers first same-sex weddings, 20 years later

Twenty years ago, 27 LGBTQ+ couples met at a park in New Paltz, New York to do two things: get married, and break the law. The act of civil disobedience tested New York’s marriage laws at a time when same-sex marriage was hotly debated, but still largely illegal in the U.S. On Sunday, friends and advocates reunited to remember those that made it all possible – and, for one couple, to get married again.

In February 2004, Jay Blotcher and Brook Garrett were determined to be married, and they were willing to shop around for laws in different states to do it. Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriage that year, but not until May, and there was a significant effort by some states, endorsed by then-President George W. Bush, to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage nationwide. For many, there was a fear that the door would close before it had even opened.

So when Blotcher, a seasoned gay rights and AIDS activist, caught wind through his local food co-op that the mayor of New Paltz was planning to marry LGBTQ+ couples at Peace Park, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I looked at Brook [and] I said, ‘I guess we’re getting married tomorrow,'" says Blotcher.

The mass wedding on February 27 drew international attention and hundreds of onlookers, including some protesters, but mostly supporters. What was intended to be a four-couple event, including Blotcher and Garrett, grew to more than two dozen ceremonies, as couples continued to emerge from the crowd to be married by Mayor Jason West — more than seven years before state lawmakers narrowly voted to legalize same-sex marriage.

"It was just exhilarating to be part of it, to have the support of all these strangers, and to know that the world’s eyes were upon us," Blotcher recalls.

On Sunday, Blotcher and Garrett renewed their vows with the same ceremony and officiant, but this time, without the threat of legal repercussions.

The so-called “Love is Love” drag brunch organized by the New Paltz Pride Coalition served as part-ceremony, part-fundraiser for a new LGBTQ+ center in town — and West, who is now the director of sustainability for the city of Albany, was the guest of honor. Twenty years ago, though, he was just a 26-year-old first-term mayor intent on making a mark.

West tells WAMC the idea for the wedding was already in his brain while running for mayor. At the time, he was being lobbied by farmer and activist Billiam Van Roestenberg, who was himself hoping to marry his partner of several years. West says he was incensed by Bush’s vocal opposition to gay marriage, and he felt like the ongoing debate over whether LGBTQ+ couples should be granted civil unions didn’t go far enough.

“‘Separate but equal’ has never been a good policy for civil rights, or for this," says West.

By hosting the wedding, West didn’t actually expect the couples’ marriages to be treated as official: they would still need to be approved by the Department of Health to get a license, and that was unlikely. However, the law neither allowed nor forbid West to solemnize same-sex marriages, and due to a loophole in New York’s domestic relations law, a couple without a license was still legally married so long as their union was solemnized.

"Except the person doing the solemnization is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and a $1,000 fine," West explains. "So we thought we could just, in the absence of marriage licenses, solemnize weddings, and according to domestic relations law, they would be married…and I would be going to court to defend myself against multiple misdemeanors."

Asked if he was nervous, West says he didn't sleep the night before.

"I was terrified," he notes.

So terrified, in fact, that Van Roestenberg says the wedding was nearly called off. It took Van Roestenberg leaking the town's plans to the press to force everyone's hands, but even then, he notes even some LGBTQ+ rights groups were hesitant about the idea.

"They just wanted to keep living the way we were...they just wanted the status quo, they didn't want to see the new reality," he concedes. "And sometimes in life you have to do things that's hard, but change is good."

Van Roestenberg and his then-partner, Army Major Jeffrey McGowan, were the first to be married on February 27.

The day went off without a hitch, at least at first. After the event, West was slapped with 19 misdemeanor charges for solemnizing a marriage without a license (Police could not initially get eyewitness accounts of the entire event, so he was not charged for all 27 couples). But by this point, West says he was undeterred: the wedding had stirred up so much press that the town now had a waitlist of hundreds of couples looking to get married. West felt safe with a pro-bono legal team, and he promised to continue to marrying couples on a regular basis until the courts stepped in with a restraining order — which promptly happened. But when West was knocked down, the local clergy stepped up: West says roughly 300 people got married in the three months after the initial New Paltz event.

Ultimately, after a year and half in court, the charges against West were dropped. It was several years before marriage equality became the law of the land, but New York would beat the Supreme Court to legalization by about four years. West hopes the New Paltz weddings played a role in that.

"It’s such a normal thing to get married. It’s such a normal, touching act, that it’s hard to watch people get married and hold hatred in your heart for it," says West. "I think we opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that civil rights should apply to the gay and lesbian community, and there are over a thousand rights with marriage that these folks were being denied, and that that’s just simply unfair.”

For attendees at Sunday’s drag brunch, the anniversary also served as a reminder of how fragile those rights can be. Several states have passed restrictions on the transgender community in recent years, and Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman just signed an executive order banning transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports. In his concurring opinion for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the Court should revisit other landmark cases, including the case granting marriage equality. Just last week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a law allowing public officials to refuse to perform marriages for LGBTQ+ couples.

West says he’s not sure the New Paltz weddings could have happened so peacefully today. The country is even more divided now than it was in 2004. However, he and Blotcher both say the event stands as an important example of the power of organization, and helped foster a vibrant LGBTQ+ community in the Hudson Valley.

“I think the lessons that we can learn from the New Paltz weddings is that when you see injustice respond to it," says Blotcher. "Push back against the bullies, because there are good-hearted people out there who want to do the right thing, and you need to connect with them, and undo all the awful things that conservatives in this country are hell-bent on doing.”

Blotcher and Garrett were eventually married (for real) in California in 2008, and Blotcher helped found the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center in Kingston. Van Roestenberg and McGowan later divorced, but Van Roestenberg regularly hosts weddings at his farm, Liberty View Farm, in Highland. The New Paltz Pride Coalition estimates Sunday’s fundraiser collected roughly $12,000 in donations that will go toward establishing a new pride center.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."