Southampton resident Lisa Votino-Tarrant took New York State's same-sex marriage fight very personally.
Votino-Tarrant became a field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign for the six months leading up to the state Senate's vote to legalize same-sex marriage, encouraging constituents to tell their legislators to vote "yes."
She said the importance of voting and equality were impressed upon her from a young age. “My mom, when I was kid, would always bring me into the voting booth," she recalled. "She was always big on everyone being treated equally.”
Though heterosexual, the same-sex marriage debate struck a cord with Votino-Tarrant, she said, because there was a time when her own marriage would have been illegal in many states.
She is of Italian and Irish ancestry, and her husband, Matauqus Tarrant, is a Shinnecock Indian born and raised on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton.
Votino-Tarrant is from Sayville originally, and moved to the East End of Long Island part time nine years ago, and permanently six years ago. In 2005, she married Tarrant, and they now live on the Shinnecock Reservation together.
“I worked at his aunt’s smoke shop and was working with his cousins, and he stopped in to visit. And from then on I kidded around with everybody that I was going to marry their nephew — and hadn't even met him yet,” she said.
“We went on one date and have been together ever since.”
Soon, they will welcome their first child.
It was only after Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision, that their union was considered legal in the entire U.S.
"Now we see the same thing playing out with marriage equality,” she said. “Who's to say we don’t love each other? Why would we deny anyone else love?"
When she talked to people on the streets on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign and marriage equality, many she spoke with assumed she was gay, herself, she said. And that's when she told them the story of Loving v. Virginia and why one doesn't have to be gay to support same-sex marriage.
“Human Rights Campaign had 30 organizers statewide; of those, I was the only straight, married organizer,” she said.
She walked into East End businesses to get store owners to sign post cards, walked up to people on beaches — and even went to a Lady GaGa concert.
“Within the LGBT community, this was a no-brainer, and for a lot of younger people this was really a no-brainer," she said. "It was really [about] getting our parents to be for it.”
It wasn't always easy approaching strangers about a controversial topic.
“I was attacked at one of the beaches by a group of five high school/early college guys, and that shook me up pretty bad,” Votino-Tarrant said.
She said she had asked them to sign a post card, and one got belligerent and told her, "I'm gonna make you straight." But when he made a move toward her, his friend grabbed his arm and dragged him off, she said.
“Another time, I had an old man throw a cup of cold coffee at me while I was pumping gas," she recalled.
She came to work for the Human Rights Campaign after staffing for Regina Calcaterra for New York State Senate.
“When I worked for Regina Calcaterra’s campaign, our campaign director recommended me to Human Rights Campaign, because he knew they were going to be doing work in New York,” Votino-Tarrant said.
Ultimately, Calcaterra, of New Suffolk, was removed from the ballot due to residency issues, and the incumbent she was challenging, Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, of Port Jefferson went on to keep his seat and vote against the same-sex marriage bill.
“In the end, no Long Island senators voted for it — the nine white Republican senators,” Votino-Tarrant said. However, their votes ended up not being needed, as the bill was adopted 33 to 29, on June 24, 2011.
“I look at our state senators on Long Island very differently now," Votino-Tarrant said. "They can do all the good in the world, but in the end they voted against equality and that rubs me the wrong way.”
For her efforts, the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union honored her with the Equality Award during its annual awards luncheon in May.
She had worked closely with the Suffolk NYCLU, but said she was surprised to have been chosen for the honor.
Though the Human Rights Campaign did not sway any Long Island senators, Votino-Tarrant is proud of the work she did. “Every day I went to bed knowing I made a small difference in the world," she said.
The day of the vote, she was in Albany with other organizers. “The fact that marriage equality is a reality in New York is awesome," she said. "We were in the [Senate chamber] gallery when that passed. It was amazing. The New York City Gay Pride Parade was the following weekend. We were treated like rock stars.”
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