Elevate Difference

One Summer in New Paltz: A Cautionary Tale

In the wake of a failing U.S. economy and two unwarranted wars, former president Bush set out to condemn the gay community as he called for a constitutional amendment to reduce gay rights. Facing reelection, the president’s call to enshrine a heterosexual definition of marriage into the Constitution effectively diverted attention away from his failures and used the gay community as a convenient scapegoat. But Bush’s move did more than spark nationwide debate. The anti-gay initiative spurred the country’s largest gay rights movement yet.

The film One Summer in New Paltz is set in this context. The documentary centers on the small town of New Paltz, New York in the summer of 2004 when Mayor Jason West courageously defied Bush’s prohibition of same sex marriage. In an effort to advocate equal rights and avert a chilling effect on the gay rights movement, the young mayor followed in the footsteps of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom by performing same-sex marriages on the steps of his town’s village hall.

As the news spread throughout the region, thousands of same-sex couples inundated the town with hopes to get married. Whether it was for love or for justice, citizens across the country began to rally for equal rights. Although Mayor West faced criminal charges and threats of removal from office, the town continued the struggle as they organized behind the gay rights cause. Ignited and empowered, interfaith leaders and same-sex marriage supporters began to perform same-sex marriages despite the risks.

The film goes on to chronicle subsequent gay rights rallies across the state and demonstrates how citizens took a proactive approach to gay rights in the Nyack Ten legal suit against the state of New York. The film also examines the patriarchal and racist dogmas underlying much of the anti-gay marriage discourse as it documents the first day of legal same-sex marriages in Boston, Massachusetts in May 2004.

Nancy Nicol’s forthright documentary is not only revealing; it is inspiring. The film delineates how local activism and civil disobedience same-sex marriages spurred a nationwide mobilization for equal rights. One Summer in New Paltz skillfully unearths how a national movement was cultivated from the seeds of grassroots activism and solidarity.

Nicol explores the relationship of same-sex marriage, gay/straight alliances, civic engagement, race and the family. The raw footage of protests and thought-provoking interviews offer spectators an intimate window into the ground level of the burgeoning gay rights movement. Additionally, the film conveys how the courage and determination of a few can give rise to the mobilization of many.

One Summer in New Paltz offers a vibrant portrait of a small town that served as a catalyst for a national gay rights movement for marriage equality. For those who desire a closer look at how it all began, this film is worth watching.

Written by: Sofia Marin, March 5th 2010