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The day that had to come; New York helps lead the way toward equality with vote on gay marriage

Eventually, we get it right. That's the history of our country. Whether it is slavery or Jim Crow or women's suffrage or some other issue of civil rights, sooner or later, daylight dawns. So it will be, eventually, with gay marriage and when it happens, New Yorkers will be able to say that they helped lead the way.

The measure won its approval in a 33-29 vote in the New York State Senate on Friday, putting this state on track to become the sixth state, along with Washington, D.C., to legalize same-sex marriage. The Assembly has already passed a bill and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made its adoption a goal of his first year in office. He signed the bill on Saturday to take effect 30 days later.

If it was a long time coming -- and it was -- it also represented a dramatic shift in thinking over a fairly short period. Same-sex marriage didn't have to be approved this week, but sooner or later, it was bound to pass. The evolution was inevitable.

Still, those legislators who voted for this measure have a right to feel proud, though none more than Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo. Grisanti, a Catholic, had campaigned as an opponent of same-sex marriage but as he investigated the issue, he came to see there was no legal justification for blocking this measure. He voted for it and if, as he fears, he loses some Republican and Conservative votes, we hope Democrats and centrists of all parties will remember his courage when they vote again next year.

Still, this was a day that had to come. The die was cast on the day gays first stepped out of the closet, refusing to be stigmatized any longer for their inborn humanity. Once heterosexuals were allowed -- forced -- to see that gays weren't caricatures, but their relatives, neighbors and friends, the task of dehumanizing them became increasingly difficult. How long does it take before you stop granting human rights to humans?

It's a question that volleyed across the centuries in one form or another and will continue sounding for centuries to come. It is in our nature, apparently, to relegate whole categories of people to second-class status based on their race, religion, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or other characteristic -- anything that makes them a ripe target for scapegoating.

The country was settled by Europeans seeking to escape religious persecution. They adopted racial persecution. We ended legalized slavery. We pushed for laws on civil rights. We removed the barriers to voting by women.

Through all of that, though, discrimination against homosexuals remained comfortably in place -- so pervasive, so seemingly right, that gays had little recourse but to hide their sexuality. That began to change with the 1969 "Stonewall Riots" in New York City and accelerated with President Clinton's attempt to end the ban on gays in the military.

Clinton failed, but with his effort, the genie left the bottle. Gay rights became a mainstream issue and, although, it took time for the realization to settle, there is nothing more mainstream, more human, than marriage. As increasing numbers of Americans began reaching voting age with no prejudice against gays, the end of this hurtful, unconstitutional bias was foreordained.

Prejudices die hard. The end of slavery did not mean the end of racial discrimination, nor did the adoption of the Civil Rights Act. It may take time for the change to make its way elsewhere in the country, but last week, New York voted to acknowledge that gays are people, too. Welcome to the 21st century.

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