It has been 10 years since the first same-sex marriage ceremonies were performed in Ulster County’s New Paltz. New York would not legalize same-sex marriages for another seven years. Yesterday on Midday Magazine, we heard an archival report from February 2004 on the first day of gay weddings. Today, one member of the first same-sex couple married that day reflects. Billiam van Roestenberg spoke with WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne about then and now.
Billiam van Roestenberg stood outside New Paltz Village Hall February 27, 2004, as Mayor Jason West presided over van Roestenberg’s marriage to former partner and retired Army Major Jeffrey McGowan. Van Roestenberg says New Paltz broke a glass ceiling.
“And as many of us said, and what I said in particular at that time in late February 2004 is that we’re going to in short time desensitize the American public, meaning that in years ahead, as we are now, we are making people be aware that gay people are not evil as President Bush said and as the Pope said. We did and we wanted to change things, and we wanted to change civilization as we know it. They were afraid of that – it would change civilization as we know it. Well, thank goodness, of course, because we don’t want discrimination in this country.”
Van Roestenberg not only was part of the first couple married that day, he was among the organizers.
“How important do you think it was for that day 10 years ago to play a role in the 2011 signing of legalizing gay marriage in New York State?” Dunne asks.
“I think it was very important because it planted a seed so to speak. It was something that, again, it wasn’t so abstract and so far-fetched, replies van Roestenberg. “It was done, nothing happened, nothing changed. God didn’t come down and strike his wrath. People went on with their lives and, in fact, what it did, it showed that we are evolving as a human race, that we are supporting other people with different beliefs. And that was a beautiful thing. And I think absolutely that played a role in moving this whole thing forward. It was very interesting, at the time we were in war and President Bush right before the wedding said, we were talking about the war, and he said the axis of evil and all this stuff. But let’s focus on the positive. We had Boston that was going to do it in a few months. We had San Francisco that was doing it at the same time as New Paltz. I called it the axis of freedom. And when you do these little things, when you have a little community, a little village called New Paltz that stood up with their huge sister cities, these big metropolises in this most famous country, on the East Coast and the West Coast, it said, okay, if small-town America is doing this, big cities are doing it, it’s not that bad and it’s the right thing to do.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2011 signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. The 2004 marriages were not recognized by the state, as then-Governor George Pataki and former State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said same-sex marriage violated the state’s domestic relations law. Van Roestenberg says he was prepared for the ramifications in 2004.
“Well, we were prepared for anything in between on both sides of the spectrum. We were told with the attorneys that were representing not only Jason West but us as individuals and myself as the first couple married that we were all potentially facing arrest. We would be put in jail. So that was one side of the argument. The other side argument was everyone’s going to back off. This is not such a terrible thing. The law in New York State was very grey. Had it been now, 10 years later, everybody would have supported us and there would be no debate, even it hadn’t passed in the state legislature.”
He says being in the limelight and experiencing enormous stress, including death threats, following the 2004 ceremonies took a toll on his marriage. He and McGowan divorced, and van Roestenberg has since remarried. In fact, about 10 minutes from New Paltz Village Hall sits van Roestenberg’s Liberty View Farm in Highland, home not only to an organically-grown apple orchard, goats and other animals, vegetables and the like, but more recently, weddings. Van Roestenberg notes that he sits on the board of Ulster County Tourism and is busy promoting farm and estate weddings which, he says, draw in visitors with open wallets.
“They book our hotels,” says van Roestenberg. “They hire caterers that buy local food. They hire local musicians, photographers. They’re spending oodles of money. These weddings are $30,000 to $300,000 on a property like this and they’re bringing in wonderful, wonderful tax revenue, and it’s very, very powerful to Ulster County residents.”
“And you got married on your own farm right?” Dunne inquires.
“I did,” says van Roestenberg. “It was really beautiful. I had only two weeks’ notice. Unfortunately, once again, my wedding couldn’t be planned like most people. It happened last year before the Supreme Court of the United States was making a decision. And we thought maybe they were going to take away all the rights to gay people. So friends of mine and close friends and attorneys, they all advised me to get married before this because if you get married before, in America we have this thing called being grandfathered in. So we had to rush to this. I gave three weeks’ notice to 136 guests, including our wonderful, and I was honored that my incredible congressman, Maurice Hinchey was attending.”
Hinchey retired from Congress at the end of his term in 2012. As for van Roestenberg, he says he will continue in his activist role, though a bit differently.
“I became an activist at 18. I’m going to be 49 in a few weeks. And it’s important to move forward and constantly fight for the good causes. There are so many good causes out there. I’m not one of these people that likes to dwell on the negative. Let’s do the right thing; let’s fight for health for everyone, for freedom, eating healthy. I’ve been active taking my political activity, as far as a gay rights activist, and moving it into also farm activism, organic farm activism. And, at the same time, as I’m getting older, I’m trying to reflect and take a little bit of time for myself and my friends and family. Because I devoted so much time in the past, I had no time for anything else.”
That was WAMC’s Allison Dunne speaking with Ulster County resident Billiam van Roestenberg, one half of the first same-sex couple married in New Paltz in 2004.