25 Plattekill Avenue, New Paltz
At the intersection of Plattekill Ave and Hasbrouck Avenue, just off Main Street in downtown New Paltz, sits a small grassy hill locally known as Peace Park. It is part of the land that encompasses the Village Hall of New Paltz. It was on that site that Mayor Jason West, solemnized Billiam van Roestenberg and Jeffery McGowan, followed by 24 other couples, in marriage on February 27, 2004, the first same-sex weddings in New York State.
What took place in New Paltz was the culmination of many years of activism and organizing across the United States. In 1996, the US Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage under federal law as the union of man and a woman and allowed states to not recognize same sex marriage sanctioned by another state. In response, states such as Hawaii, Vermont, and Massachusetts brought cases to state courts to test the laws regarding same-sex marriage. This led President Bush to declare at his 2004 State of the Union address that he supported “traditional marriage”.
Bush’s comments sparked action across the country. Soon thereafter, the City of San Francisco held same-sexmarriage ceremonies–formalized but not recognized by law–in opposition and as an act of civil disobedience. New Paltz soon followed San Francisco’s example, showing that progressive change was not only happening in large, liberal cities, but also in small towns.
New Paltz provided fertile soil for such action. The town and the surrounding area had a sizable “hippie” community with roots in the 1960s and 1970s. More broadly, alternative and progressive politics had a significant presence in the town. Mayor West was a prime example
having recently been elected as mayor under the Green Party at the age of 26. It was West who saw the opportunity to replicate what San Francisco did in New Paltz, a community that he knew would be in strong support.
The Ulster County district attorney charged Mayor West with solemnizing people without a license (the charges were later dropped). Nevertheless, the formation of the New Paltz Equality Initiative helped continue the political momentum created by the marriage ceremonies. Along with local ministers, clergy from across the state, and students from the SUNY New Paltz, the Equality Initiative continued the marriages through the summer–eventually coining the season the “The Summer of Love.”
The marriage ceremonies themselves were a spectacle, with hundreds attending and cheering for the weddings. Organizers wanted to draw in as many people and as many cameras as possible. And it worked. As one member of the New Paltz community explained, the ceremonies reflected moments of massive support that helped to normalize and make acceptable same-sex relations among the broad public.
New Paltz was not a blip in history but a catalyst for broader change. In 2011, Governor Cuomo legalized same-sex marriage for all New Yorkers, and in 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal under federal law.
Today at Peace Park, you can find a small golden plaque on the lawn with an inscription of remembrance for the marriage ceremonies that took place in 2004.
From Poughkeepsie (accessible via the Hudson Line of Metro North) take the Ulster County Area Transit bus to New Paltz (~25 minutes); the same bus line connects to towns north of New Paltz, like Rosendale and Kingston. Trailways also runs buses directly from the Port Authority in Manhattan to New Paltz (~100 minutes).
To learn more:
Nancy Nico and Miriam Smith (2008). Legal Struggles and Political Resistance: Same-Sex Marriage in Canada and the USA. Sexualities, 11(6), 667-687.
Nearby site of interest:
Hasbrouch Park is the big sister to Peace Park. It sits across Plattekill Avenue and marks the endpoint of the annual Gay Pride march in New Paltz. In the early 2000s when gay rights were heavily contested and fought for, the march was the largest in the Hudson Valley.