Waiting for the Enlightenment

By Jeffrey Page
I’ve been waiting for that mystical third Republican, the one who’d add his or her vote in the State Senate to those of two previously announced Republicans, and almost all the Democrats, and make New York a place where gay people can do what most people take for granted: Get married.

First Senator X was supposed to appear any day. Then Richard Long, the chairman of the Conservative Party, announced that any Republican who supports a same-sex marriage bill would suffer terribly by never again receiving the endorsement of the Conservatives. And all of a sudden, the talk in Albany turned from marriage to tenant rights in New York City.

But I’m still waiting. And I’m thinking about the freshness in the breeze when Sen. Roy McDonald, one of the two Republicans on record in support of same-sex marriage, spoke to reporters. “They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue collar background. I’m trying to do the right thing and that’s where I’m going with this,” he said.

I’m also thinking about George Michaels, a man who discarded his political career by doing what he believed was right.

It was 36 years ago. New York was on the verge of adopting a law allowing a woman, in consultation with her doctor, to get an abortion any time she wished in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. This was three years before Roe v. Wade.

The measure had been approved by the State Senate. Governor Nelson Rockefeller said he was ready to sign it. All that had to happen was for it to be approved by the Assembly.

George Michaels was a Democrat from a conservative rural district upstate. He supported a woman’s right to choose abortion but always voted against it since, being a politician, he liked the idea of being reelected time after time.

A vote was scheduled in April 1970, and before he made the trip to the capital, Michaels spoke with his son’s wife. The Associated Press reported years later that Michaels told her if the bill failed, it might be voted again in the next session.

“In the meantime,” his daughter-in-law said, “thousands of women will be mutilated and die because of that stupid legislature.”

“Boy, that rocked me,” AP quoted Michaels.

He went to Albany. The abortion bill came up. Michaels voted against it.

And it went down by one vote.

But then Michaels addressed the chamber. “I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career,” he said – The Times reporting that his hands trembled as he grasped the microphone – “but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill. I ask that my vote be changed from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’” And for women in New York, the Dark Ages ended.

Michaels was right. It was political suicide. A five-term incumbent, he suddenly had challengers in the 1970 primary, which he lost. He was 80 years old when he died in 1992.

Where’s the one Republican needed to stand tall now?

Where’s that one Republican who will acknowledge out loud that which he privately knows is the truth: That gay people pay taxes, obey the speed limit, raise children, go to church, and pursue happiness with a fervor equal to everyone else’s.

Where’s the next George Michaels?

Jeff can be reached at jeffrey@zestoforange.com.


3 Responses to “Waiting for the Enlightenment”

  1. Marcia Castro Says:

    Jeff. that was just totally outstanding.

    I worked from 1970 until 1979 as a counsellor to girls and women needing guidance regarding unplanned pregnancies. I explained their options, supported their decision and then arranged for whatever they decided would be best. This is a big issue for me. I am also completely in favor of anyone old enough to get married having the right to do it. I am not sure it is always a good idea, but that has nothing to do with gender and certainly is not my business.


  2. Michael Says:

    Fine piece, Jeff. I had forgotten about George Michaels. Thanks for reminding us about his courageous stand. I’ve been trying to think of other examples of politicians who sacrificed their careers to uphold their principles. Charles Goodell was a conservative Republican Congressman when he was appointed by Gov. Rockefeller to fill the U.S. Senate seat that had belonged to the slain Robert F. Kennedy. But he soon became an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam at a time when the majority of Republicans and almost all Republican elected officials were in favor of it. In the 1970 Senate election Republicans abandoned him in droves while many Democrats crossed party lines to vote for him instead of Richard Ottinger, who also ran as a peace candidate. As a result, pro-war James Buckley was elected on the Conservative Party line even though many more people had voted for one or the other anti-war candidate. Goodell later was appointed by President Ford to serve as vice chair of a committee to draft rules for granting amnesty to Vietnam era draft resisters and deserters. He died in 1987. Can you or anyone else think of some other examples?

  3. Jeffrey Page Says:

    I think it’s time to dig up my copy of “Profiles in Courage.”

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