In defiance of state law, San Francisco’s new 36-year old Mayor, Gavin Newsom, vowed on Tuesday to keep on marrying same-sex couples until the courts order him to stop. As of Wednesday, after three hearings in front of two judges, the courts have refused to intervene––at least for a few days.
But as observers across the nation wondered how long this is going to last, more than 2,600 couples filed though the doors of City Hall, signed the city’s hastily revised marriage license application, heard a collection of quickly deputized city officials and volunteer marriage commissioners intone “Love, loyalty and understanding are the foundations for a happy home,” and then proclaim them “spouses for life.”
“For life,” said Terrance Alan, a city commissioner, who was number 67 on Friday. “I am living with the same man I was three days ago, but as a result of that ceremony our relationship has profoundly changed.”
Alan, 50, said that now that gays and lesbians can make a life commitment to each other, in the eyes of the state, the change will make a fundamental difference, over time, in the way that gays and lesbians conduct their relationships.
“Now, for better or worse, we get the same stepping stones along a relationship that straights do,” he said, “engagement, marriage, and a joining of families.”
“And there’s sacrifice too,” quipped gay San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, “now we can have in-laws.”
The mood inside City Hall was ebullient. Newsom kept the building open, and the marriages going throughout the long Presidents Day weekend, which included Valentine’s Day. In lines that wrapped around the block on Saturday were Erin Lewis and Molly Hollis who had flown 14 hours from Austin, Texas. They camped overnight in front of City Hall on Saturday night, in the rain, along with many others. But they were still smiling.
“It feels like the roof is about to blow off with the joy,” exclaimed one newlywed.
“Everybody was so nice and happy for us,” said Mary Anne O’Connor who married her partner of twelve and a half years. “As gay people we feel oppressed without even realizing it. It’s pent up emotion that finally had a positive outlet. There we were, doing what straight people do every day. It was a taste of being first class citizens. We were crying as soon as we walked in.”
And most did cry. When Ken Ruebush and Jeff Zimman were married, on Friday after 19 years together, a woman rushed up to them and hugged them both.
“I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but I cried at your wedding.”
Molly McKay, of California’s Freedom to Marry Coalition, was among the first to take her vows. But McKay has been wearing a wedding dress for five years to protests and bus tours around the state. Before going into City Hall on Thursday, she led the crowd on the steps in Bob Dylan’s anthem, “The times, they are a-changin.”
The first ceremonies were done on a moment’s notice.
“I’m playing hooky from work,” said Xan DeVoss as she hugged her bride, Layla Bohannon. In tears she said, “It feels great – I got you.”
By Saturday, volunteers had gathered to hand out donated wedding cake, and the city’s Parks Department brought in orchids to decorate the City Hall rotunda.
Alan said that the ceremony not only changed his life, but gave him an understanding of the power of the institution of marriage. “We are participating in a cultural institution that empowers people,” he said. “That is fundamentally what the right wing fears, that we’ll get it, and they’ll be no turning back.”
On Thursday, just after the marriages began, San Francisco’s gay Assemblyman Mark Leno called them acts of civil disobedience. He said he had performed at least 150 ceremonies.
“We live in a democracy, not a theocracy,” he said.
But the city’s actions are unique in the history of the civil rights movement, because these marriages are civil disobedience by an entire city government, and its straight white mayor, not just by the individuals directly effected.
At a press conference on Friday, Newsom was joined by five members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, the city assessor, the city attorney, and the sheriff, all supporting the mayor’s decision.
Newsom said listening to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address last month, his overpowering inclination was to want to run from the room. But he said that it was during that speech, when Bush suggested his potential support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, that the germ of the idea for gay marriages in San Francisco came to him.
The first couple married under the Newsom edict recognized the struggles to come.
“We’re going to have to fight this marriage fight. We’re going to have to fight it the way we’ve fought all our other battles,” said gay rights pioneer Phyllis Lyon, who married her partner, Del Martin.
In the courthouse across the street from City Hall on Tuesday, two separate judges in separate cases refused to stop the weddings. Both California superior court judges found that the plaintiffs failed to show that the city’s action would result in “irrevocable harm,” the standard required for an immediate stay before a trial.
In the first suit, brought by the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, attorney Robert H. Tyler protested that “the foundation of liberty and democracy is at stake this very day.”
But Superior Court Judge James L. Warren (a grandson of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren) found that no real immediate damage was being done, specifically naming Lyon and Martin, a couple for 51 years. “Where’s the harm?” he asked.
Warren did not rule out the possibility of an injunction when the case is eventually heard on March 29.
Tyler said that then the case will be decided on the question of whether the city is violating state law, which he said San Francisco is defying. “Lord willing, we’ll have the justice San Francisco needs,” he warned.
But Chief Deputy City Attorney Terry Stuart argues that the city is enforcing the equal protection clause of California’s constitution. “Stated simply, my actions are consistent with California’s Constitution, the highest law of our state. There is no ambiguity in our Constitution when it comes to discrimination. It is prohibited,” Newsom said in a statement on Wednesday.
Tyler said that California’s voters decided the gay marriage issue when they voted, by a margin of 60 percent, in 2000 for Proposition 22 which says that marriage is between a man and a woman. But in court, Stuart said that the state’s constitution prevails over statutes and propositions.
On Wednesday, the Alliance Defense Fund filed an immediate appeal asking for the injunction in the state’s appellate court, but no hearing date has been set. The vast majority of such appeals are turned down. On Wednesday, the California Court of Appeals turned down an appeal from the plaintiffs in the second suit, the Campaign for California Families. They had asked for an emergency stay after Superior Court Judge Ronald Evans Quidachay told them he would not stop the weddings on Tuesday morning. According to Deputy City Attorney Stuart, the Campaign for California families will have to make the same showing of irrevocable harm at their next hearing on Friday, an argument that the Alliance Defense Fund failed at on Tuesday.
The overlapping cases and the new appeals put the case in a complicated legal limbo. The San Francisco city attorney’s office predicts that the first major showdown will be at the hearing on March 29, but they expect the case to end up in the California Supreme Court. The city hopes the judges will allow the marriages to continue until then, by which time it is likely many more thousands will have been married.
“If the sky hasn’t fallen,” said Stuart, the justices will be more reluctant to void the marriages after so many have been granted.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke out against the city’s actions saying, “I support the law and encourage San Francisco officials to obey that law.” On Wednesday, Pres. George W. Bush said he was “troubled” by San Francisco’s same-sex marriages, and his wife, Laura, termed them “very, very shocking.”
The state’s Department of Health Services has said it will refuse to record the marriage certificates because the city has modified the state’s standard form, changing the terms “bride” and “groom” to “1st” and “2nd applicant,” drawing into question the usefulness of the marriages and probably setting up another series of legal battles.
But the weddings continue.
Lyon and her new bride, Martin, founded one of the nations’ first lesbian rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in San Francisco in 1955 and published one of the nation’s first lesbian journals, The Ladder.
Did she ever think this would happen? “No,” Lyon said. “Never. For part of the time it wasn’t even something we wanted, during the women’s movement. Women were looking at marriage with a very jaundiced eye. Marriage wasn’t something that women wanted to get anywhere near. But we changed our minds . Separate but equal is not equal.”