On February 12, as they had a year ago, gay and lesbians couples seeking to marry lined up cheerfully in the winter morning sun at the doors and then around the corner on the sidewalk in front of San Francisco’s City Hall.
Most wore red, white and blue stickers that said “We Deserve the Freedom to Marry.” Like last year, television crews poked microphones while reporters for the evening news shows interviewed couples.
Inside and under the gilded dome, 2,000 packed the rotunda and crowded the balconies. They watched a movie of themselves, pledging to be “spouses for life.” The cheering from the movie sound track echoed with the cheers of the crowd. Kate Kendell, from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who has been a key legal strategist in the California marriage litigation, introduced Mayor Gavin Newsom, noting that he had made possible “the day we changed the world.”
Last August, seven months after the City Hall weddings took place, California’s Supreme Court overturned San Francisco’s same-sex marriages. But gay marriage advocates insist that the images beamed from under City Hall’s dome, of newly-wed gay couples kissing, made the rest of America “see the love,” “put[ting] a public face on our private lives.” Newsom’s critics, in contrast, charged that the spectacle sent the American public running from their televisions and helped tipped the balance in favor of George W. Bush in November while cinching the passage anti-gay marriage bans in a total of 13 states during 2004.
“Don’t kid yourself, they were disgusted,” said one highly placed gay rights leader. “Too much, too fast, too soon,” said California’s senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the day after the November election.
Newsom either enjoyed, or endured—depending on your perspective—enormous and intrusive television interviews during the month-long gay marriage stint last year in San Francisco. But even as the weddings were going on, Congressman Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts Democrat, arrived in town to charge that the images were inflammatory, and would not garner the sympathy that fully legal gay marriages would receive three months later, in May, in his home state.
Newsom is now more defiant than ever. In a bravura speech, with his back to a row of city, state and American flags, he told about 500 of the nearly 4,000 couples married last years that “we will prevail.”
He criticized the president for mentioning yet again, in this January’s State of the Union address, his support for a federal constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.
“This door is open and nothing the president of the United States will ever do will change that,” said Newsom.
Then the mayor took on the establishment of his own party.
“I think it’s time to hold our elected officials accountable,” he said, in a barb squarely aimed at Feinstein. “It’s not acceptable to ask for your money and your support and then say, ‘It’s too much, too soon.’”
San Francisco’s gay state Assemblyman, Mark Leno, called Newsom’s criticisms of fellow Democrats “very bold.”
“It’s that kind of resolute voice that continues to move the issue forward,” said Leno, who is the author of California’s pending gay marriage legislation. “He dares to speak from his heart.”
“I don’t care what happens to me,” Newsom said wrapping up his speech. “I care what happens to you and this country.”
“I love you Gavin,” shouted someone in the crowd from a balcony.
“I love you too,” Newsom replied.
Love may only be a slightly hyperbolic description of the mayor’s relationship to his constituents. Newsom, 37, enjoys phenomenal popularity in San Francisco with approval ratings in the 80 percent range. He is just one year into his first term. By law he will be bound to only two terms and some pundits have guessed that by 2011, when he is 44, gay marriage will be, as attorney Kendell said, “a what-were-we-all-so-worried-about issue.” Then Newsom will be remembered as the man who started it all.
Following his speech under City Hall’s dome, Newsom, in a made-for-TV moment in his office with three of the gay couples who married last year, offered up unscripted criticism of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced he would appeal a state court ruling order same-sex marriage, saying that appellate oversight was needed to avoid the confusion that resulted when the San Francisco marriages were overturned.
“I hope he sees the light,” Newsom said.