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Astoria man wants state to recognize gay marriages

Although gay couples cannot get married anywhere in the United States, Jesus Lebron of Astoria is committed to securing that right in New York state.

Lebron, 40, is the founder of Marriage Equality New York, the state’s first grass-roots same-sex marriage organization.

“We believe same-sex marriage is the way to go and that New York is a state where the possibility of same-sex marriage can indeed happen,” said Lebron, a social worker who has provided counseling in an alternative families program at Manhattan’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community center. “We are just as much entitled to the word ‘marriage.’ We are no less than any other people in our society.”

Lebron’s group has dubbed May 19-23 Right to Marry Week an effort to garner support for two bills currently before the state Assembly and state Senate that would legalize same-sex marriage.

The bills would clarify state law, which does not explicitly bar same-sex couples from marrying, by formally recognizing marriages regardless of the whether the couples are of the same or different sex.

While Vermont has already established civil unions for same-sex couples, Lebron wants to see New York go even further by legalizing marriage.

“We deserve the right to not only the legal benefits that come with marriage, but the right to call ourselves married in every sense of the word,” Lebron said. “There are 1,049 federal benefits which come with marriage which are incredibility important which we would not be entitled to under a civil unions legislation.”

Pauline Park, the secretary of the Queens Pride House in Woodside, agrees that advocates should not be willing to settle for civil unions.

“It’s really important to recognize that civil unions are only half a loaf,” Park said. “Civil marriage confers hundreds and indeed thousands of rights and benefits and privileges that cannot be obtained in any other way, particularly at the federal level in terms of citizenship through marriage.”

In fact, the issue of citizenship is critical to the multinational gay community in Queens, where immigrants who settle down with American citizens may still face deportation if their papers are not in order — a problem marriage would eliminate.

“I’ve seen dozens of couples be torn apart, people having been forced to go back to their countries just because they couldn’t get married and they couldn’t get immigration rights,” said Andres Duque, a Jackson Heights resident and director of Mano a Mano, a coalition of Latino LGBT groups.

Even if the bid for gay marriage failed at the state level, the Permanent Partners Immigration Act currently stalled in the U.S. House would if passed secure immigration rights for same-sex partners of American citizens. But it is unclear when the bill may ever see the light of day as law.

Although the city created a domestic partner registry in 1997, it offers only limited rights that the city can confer, like hospital visitation and housing succession.

But Lebron is confident the law can go much further on the state level.

“I’d like to say within the next five years we can see same-sex marriage as a reality,” he said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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