| || || |
Friday, March 12, 2004
Court halts gay vows
29-DAY DRAMA: S.F. unleashed a 'gay-marriage tsunami'
Suzanne Herel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Two days before Valentine's Day, a lesbian couple who had been together for 50 years quietly entered San Francisco City Hall and exchanged marriage vows.
And so it began.
The same-sex union of activists Del Martin, 83, and Phyllis Lyon, 79, opened a 29-day drama and placed San Francisco in the center of a national debate that had been simmering for decades. At the same time, it raised the city's new young mayor to the status of national political figure, praised by some and reviled by others.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, a straight, married Irish Catholic whom many had pegged as conservative during his campaign, hadn't been in office a full two weeks before he made the surprise decision to order the county clerk to issue same-sex marriage licenses. After hashing out the plan with advisers, the date of battle was set: Feb. 12.
His action was a watershed moment in the years of efforts by gays and lesbians to win the right to marry. In some places, they had acquired the status of domestic partners and recognition through commitment ceremonies. But the fight always stopped short of the issuance of a legal marriage certificate.
Now, the mayor of a major city was challenging as unconstitutional a state law and a ballot measure passed by California voters banning same-sex unions. And as the days went by, the courts declined to halt the marriages.
The movement spread to the states of Oregon, New York and New Mexico, where officials defied state laws and married same-sex couples.
Closer to home, communities around California, including San Jose and Santa Cruz, joined San Francisco's side in the emotional debate. The San Jose City Council voted to give all married city workers regardless of sexual orientation identical benefits.
Aliza Almar, 44, a lesbian who lives in the Castro, called what San Francisco started "a gay marriage tsunami," which she doubts ultimately can be stopped.
Newsom's move galvanized critics as well as supporters. He received scores of vitriolic letters saying he should be kicked out of office or brought up on charges. There were rumors of death threats.
President Bush who unwittingly had sparked Newsom's move by talking of a same-sex marriage ban in his State of the Union address announced he would seek an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.
"I think it is like unruly children. San Francisco Mayor Newsom and county Clerk Nancy Alfaro have been testing their judicial parents with how much they can get away with," said Terry Thompson, a member of the Alliance Defense Fund, which sued San Francisco over its defiance of state marriage law. He called what has transpired in San Francisco since Feb. 12 "municipal anarchy."
As soon as the news was out that San Francisco was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, callers flooded City Hall's phone system and at one point knocked it out of service.
Newsom kept the building open on Sunday, and dozens of volunteers worked through the weekend to wed couples who rushed in to get their licenses before the court had a chance to take away their chance.
When the long President's Day weekend was over, 2,271 couples had received marriage licenses.
In the following days, hundreds more couples flocked to City Hall, where lines wound around the block, and people camped out overnight. The elaborate Beaux Arts-style building hummed with applause, laughter and the chatter of children many belonging to those getting married.
Joyous couples emerged from the gilded doors shouting, "We're married!" as friends handed them flutes of champagne.
Thousands of bouquets and boutonnieres came from well-wishers as far away as Tokyo. So many arrangements arrived that leftovers were dropped off at local hospitals and taken home by clerks.
As city employees left for the day and quiet descended on the marble halls, janitors swept up scattered petals and the aroma of fresh flowers still hung in the air.
Local politicians, including state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden, conducted marriages and were wed themselves. Comedian Rosie O'Donnell reacted to Bush's call for a constitutional amendment by flying in from New York with her partner and getting married. And David Knight son of the state senator who had drafted the ballot measure banning same-sex unions defied his father's position by standing at the top of the grand staircase and entering into a lifetime union with his partner.
The protesters came too, but while some were local residents who disagreed with the mayor's position, it was people from outside the Bay Area who were most vocal. Religious groups drove in with signs bearing slogans such as "God hates fags; thank God for AIDS" and preached to the couples through bullhorns.
As the days turned to weeks and the clerk's office required reservations for the licenses, the scene calmed down and it became routine to see gay and lesbian couples pledging their vows.
So much so, in fact, that the rare sight of straight couples in tuxes and long white gowns drew double-takes.
On Thursday, word that the state Supreme Court had halted the weddings spread quickly through City Hall. Couples who had appointments for a marriage license after 2:33 p.m. were turned away, many in tears, and volunteer marriage commissioners rushed to finish the last ceremonies.
Bill Jones, a volunteer who performed the most same-sex weddings 457 and fellow deputy marriage commissioner Donald Bird were visibly stunned and shaken.
"I'm absolutely blown away. I'm very, very surprised," said Jones, 75, of San Rafael. "I'm just glad I was able to help. It was a privilege to be here."
On the other side of the country, the news to supporters of same-sex marriage was sobering as well.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers took steps toward approving a constitutional amendment allowing for civil unions a move criticized by many gay activists as an unacceptable compromise after the state's highest court ruled in November that it was unconstitutional to prevent gays from marrying.
Cheryl Jacques, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, which is lobbying on Capitol Hill against a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment, said she was "disappointed to see even a temporary halt" of the licenses in San Francisco.
"The mayor's actions were brave, and clearly there were many families who sought and received the equal protection he made possible for them through a civil marriage license," Jacques said, "and I'm disappointed for those families who won't have that opportunity temporarily. But having said that, we've lived to fight another day. This will play out in the courts."
The California Supreme Court will hold a hearing in late May or early June on whether San Francisco's mayor and city clerk overstepped their authority under state law byissuing same-sex marriage licenses. The court is to rule within 90 days of the hearing.
When the marriages began
Number of same-sex marriages
Revenue to city At $82 for a marriage license and $62 for a wedding ceremony,
Number of couples with marriage appointments*
*Same-sex and heterosexual couples
Chronicle staff writers Christian Berthelsen and Carolyn Lochhead contributed to this report.