Gay activists in New York pressed for a vote on gay marriage only to see the measure rejected overwhelmingly on Wednesday. Opponents cheered the defeat, but backers say they got what they wanted.

Activists had waited patiently for months for the Senate debate, which suddenly materialized on Wednesday. With little fanfare, the debate began soon after noon on the Senate floor and ended two hours later with the death of the bill in a 38 to 24 vote.

On Thursday, Governor David Paterson said he would not reintroduce a gay marriage bill unless passage is assured.

“I won't reintroduce the issue unless I see substantial change in the position of the legislators,” Paterson said Thursday morning on Rochester-based WHAM-AM.

“The vote was 38-24, that's pretty substantial.”

“If I saw some change next year, I would introduce it,” he added.

But change won't likely come until 2011, after New York voters decide on the fate of lawmakers. The Senate in particular looks to be at risk for returning to Republican control after several high-profile scandals hit Democrats. If that happens, then it might be years before the debate returns to Albany.

Opponents of gay marriage welcomed the vote. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the nation's most vociferous opponent of gay marriage, called the defeat “a huge win.”

“This is a huge win, it puts the nail in the coffin on the idea that gay marriage advocates can persuade a majority of Americans their cause is just,” Brian Brown, executive director of NOM, said in a statement. “New York makes it crystal clear: the American people do not support gay marriage and they do not want their politicians messing with this issue.”

Democrats who favored the bill spoke passionately during Wednesday's debate. One, Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, said she would vote in favor for the bill to honor her late brother, who was gay. Others choked up when they spoke about what the measure would mean to gay family members and friends. Many said they admired the relationship of Senator Tom Duane, the bill's sponsor, and his partner.

Disappointed gay rights activists said the silver lining was found in the public vote.

“We are pleased that the issue of marriage equality at last was debated in the New York Senate,” Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's largest gay rights group, said in a statement.

“We had long called for a public debate on this matter so we could determine who was truly on our side. … Now we know where we stand, and where we need to concentrate our efforts in the future.”

And Van Capelle offered a warning: “To those senators who do not yet see our families as deserving the same protections as other families in New York, our message is simple: We are more committed than ever to this fight. We will redouble our efforts in your district to ensure that our voice is heard. We know our cause is just. … If you cannot support us, we will find candidates for public office who do, and we will work through the democratic system to effect needed change.”

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from Manhattan, echoed a similar sentiment, saying he was disappointed but the struggle continues.

“[W]e must remind ourselves that this is just one battle in a longstanding struggle, and our resolve should only be strengthened. We will ultimately be vindicated in our march toward marriage equality, and those who stood on the wrong side of history will one day regret it,” he said.

But that march has taken some unexpected detours this fall. Along with New York, gay marriage also faced defeat in Maine last month when voters “vetoed” a gay marriage law approved by lawmakers in the spring. And the results from these two key liberal states are certain to impact lawmakers in New Jersey who are being pressured to approve a gay marriage bill before Governor-elect Chris Christie, a gay marriage opponent, takes office in mid-January.

New Hampshire's gay marriage law opens on January 1. Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut have also legalized gay marriage. If Congress does not intervene, gay marriage could be legal in the District of Columbia as early as January 15.