WEST ORANGE, NJ - The fifth annual Garden State Equality Walk was attended by hundreds in Erie Park, Montclair, on Saturday, June 21.
Its theme, "Take Steps to Protect our Future" was more relevant than ever as the event came one day after the federal government announced regulatory changes to extend a wide range of marriage benefits to same-sex couples.
The ruling gives same-sex couples equal rights to heterosexual couples in federal agencies, regardless of whether or not that state recognizes gay marriage.
Same-sex spouses of employees of the Defense Department employees will now receive all the benefits of heterosexual husbands and wives. Federal immigration laws will apply equally to gay and straight married couples, and the Internal Revenue Service will recognize the marriages of all gay couples. The spouses of gay federal employees get health insurance, life insurance and flexible spending accounts.
However, there are provisions in federal law that prohibit the government from providing benefits to same-sex couples: laws applying to the Social Security agency and the Veterans Affairs Department. President Obama is expected to call on Congress to pass legislation to change those provisions.
California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachussetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennslyvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, along with Washington, D.C., legally recognize same-sex marriage.
Judges in an additional 12 states have issued rulings in favor of the freedom to marry, with many of these rulings now stayed as they proceed to appellate courts: Iowa, Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. In Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, judges have issued more limited pro-marriage rulings.
Garden State Equality also celebrated its 10th anniversary, raising $31,000 to support the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. This year's theme of "Take Steps to Protect Our Future" is aimed at supporting the LGBT community as they seek equal legal benefits and recognition under the law as well as supporting homeless LGBT youth.
Interim Director John Mikytuck, who noted the organization’s achievements in passing over 200 local and state laws regarding bullying and rights for the LGBT community, kicked off the Walk in Erie Park in Montclair.
GSE was instrumental in the passage of the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which provides protection for all children in New Jersey elementary, high school and college as well as lobbying for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Many of the attendees at the walk were local couples who got married after gaining their right to marry in October 2013.
Mikytuck thanked those that helped plan the walk, along with the Board Members of Garden State Equality, the staff, sponsors, and elected leaders that were present.
Essex County Freeholder President Bonnie Watson Coleman praised the work of Garden State Equality and noted how glad she is to be working to make sure that “everyone’s love is to be respected.”
New Jersey Assemblyman Dan Benson then took the stage with a to thank participants, followed by New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, who discussed his experience with the law process and lobbying.
Jeff Gardner, the openly gay Municipal Leader and Chair of the Hawthorne Democratic Organization who is currently running for Passaic County Clerk, opened his speech by shooting bubbles at the crowd.
The walkers then began their 2.5-mile trek around the center of Montclair and were rewarded with free tote bags and ice cream provided by Sweet Spot. John Mikytuck then returned to the stage to award prizes and thanked the participants for their support.
“Today was a great gathering of Garden State Equality's most passionate, dedicated, and committed supporters who are joined in raising awareness for the agency on such a beautiful day,” said Mikytuck.
Mia Edelstein, a West Orange resident and summer intern at GSE, noted, "how energetic and eager to everyone was to participate."