Friday, December 03, 2004

Jason West: The Marrying Kind

Most politicians are experts at backpedaling and sidestepping, but New Paltz, NY mayor Jason West took a bold leap forward when he began performing same-sex marriage ceremonies in February 2004.

Only months after being sworn in as New York's first Green Party official, the 27-year old former housepainter started talking with local gays and lesbians who wanted to formalize their unions. West examined state law, which he said "defines marriage as a contract between two people, opposite-sex or otherwise," then joined more than twenty couples before being charged with 19 counts of "solemnizing unlicensed marriages." The charges were eventually dropped but a court order prevents him from performing any more same-sex ceremonies for the time being. Though he has many gay friends, West (who is straight) said his involvement in the marriage equality issue was "just a question of basic human decency."

The New Paltz case made national headlines and West has since become something of a pop culture conversation piece. He's appeared in Mad Magazine and a character based on him popped up in a recent episode of "Law and Order." "I find it kind of amusing," he said of his newfound "celebrity." "I got recognized in Manhattan for a few months after this whole thing blew up."

Gay rights activists have encouraged West to seek higher office, but for now he's focusing on helping his constituents. "I've got my hands full with environmental issues, affordable housing and local government reform," he said. As for whether performing gay marriages will ultimately help or hinder his chances for reelection, West replied "I don't know how it will all play out, but people [here] have been extremely supportive so far." Indeed, the e-mail he's received on the issue have been 10-1 in favor of his stance.

As the marriage equality question works its way through the court system, West's hands are tied, but he promised that as soon as same-sex couples can get a license – there are three or four cases pending – he'll start performing them again. "As far as I'm concerned, these marriages are legal and always have been."

Civil rights advocates of all orientations see West as something of a folk hero, but when it comes to men he admires, West cites Colonial patriot Thomas Paine and civil rights leader Malcolm X. "They never loss sight of their convictions," he said. "even to the point of risking their freedom and their lives."


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