As much as I disagree with President Barack Obama on many issues, I’m grateful that he’s up with the times in supporting gay marriage. I understand that the idea of two people of the same sex being married may be upsetting to some people, as they may have been raised with the belief that it is just plain wrong. And I forgive Mitt Romney for being foolish in High School to bully classmate for considering him gay. Unfortunately, that was normal back then. After years of discrimination, incorrect jokes, torture and suffering, and some unnecessary deaths, we’ve reached a new normal, that when the “President of the free world” sets an example for the world saying that we can all enjoy the same rights, no matter how different we are.
Yes, there are still some growing pains that we will go through, I’m sure. But no matter who wins the election, this is a giant step for humanity. In honor of this decision, below’s an article that I wrote in collaboration with Nancy Black for Marie Claire in Brazil. It’s based on a shorter version I wrote for El Mundo, after photographing 48 weddings one day in March at the San Francisco City Hall. 32 of the photos were published in the article you can see below. It was the year 2004; It seems so long ago…
“The Sweetest Civil Disobedience”
Text: © Nancy Black and Isaac Hernández / Photos: © Isaac Hernández
More than 4,000 couples took the unexpected opportunity presented to them by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who allowed same-sex marriages to be performed at City Hall over 29 days, before State and Federal pressure closed them down.
On the last days before the weddings were stopped, Marie Claire was there, witnessing about fifty homosexual (and three straight) weddings in one day. Love was in the air. They came to City Hall to perform “the sweetest act of civil disobedience”.
Absurd to Hate Your Teacher
Anne Peacock and Suzanne Aldridge, both high school teachers in San Francisco, were pleasantly surprised when more than 30 of their students and some parents came to witness them tie the knot. Anne’s father hesitantly flew in from New York with only one week notice. “When he saw the smiling students at the ceremony,” recalls Anne, “and heard a chorus of congratulations in the school courtyard the next day, and saw me come home with a homemade cake from one student and a beautiful gift from our principal, he told me that he knew he made the right decision in coming. The students’ enthusiasm was infectious.”
“This issue really does need to have a human face,” continues Anne. “It is easy for people to hate ‘the other’ but much more difficult and even absurd to hate your teacher or cousin or neighbor or daughter or nephew.”
Many ceremonies at City Hall were small, but the emotions ran high. “I declare you a couple,” said minister Bill Jones on the high marble steps of City Hall. Somewhere else in the building, Donald Bird, another recently-appointed minister, announced, “I declare you Robert and Dan”. Applause continuously echoed throughout the building. Some couples sought out an intimate corner, others married on the middle of the main steps, surrounded by tourists and visiting school children; seeking official standing to promises usually long ago given.
For children of gay parents, the weddings gave them validation. “Our son Ari has been very interested in the prospect of our getting married for many years now,” explains Carol Lefkowitz, who married Ellen Oppenheimer. “When Mayor Gavin Newsom began this process in February, Ari (Ellen’s son) was immediately questioning if we would participate too.” Ari was thrilled. All day long he continued to smile and recall favorite aspects of the ceremony.
“We discussed the wedding with our oldest son, Dustin (9 years old),” explains Charles Penn, “so that he would know what’s going on, what it means and that he’d be going with us. Afterwards he seemed very quiet and unenthused. We asked, ‘Don’t you want to go?’ and he said ‘No.’ Jerry and I were very surprised, and asked why not. He said, ‘I really don’t want to see one of you guys in a dress.’ After we finished laughing, we explained no one was going to wear a dress, or a tux, or throw rice. He was much happier then.”
The happiness and emotion was contagious. It even spread outside of the City Hall walls. Flowers were sold out daily, as anonymous donors worldwide called to have flowers delivered to the new couples. Even the hotels in the area pitched in to make the occasion special. “When they heard we were there to get married, they moved us to the bridal suite for the same price as our room,” explains Renae Julson, just married to Linda Wheeler. “It was so thrilling to be treated equal. Everyone at the City Hall was so exuberant and supportive. We even got to meet the Mayor and give him our thanks and support.” The Mayor of Seattle signed an executive order recognizing their marriage upon their return home.
The selfless dedication of city workers and volunteers made the occasion more special than many couples expected. Jay Manley puts it best: “I think we were both really stunned by how moved we were by this experience; for us it was deeply personal and spiritual. We have been a couple for over 15 years, had been registered Domestic Partners, but by contrast, that seems like a rather clinical process, sort of like filing your taxes. Marriage has a completely different quality… it’s really a public celebration. We did not expect this opportunity now; we doubted it even in our lifetime. We knew we needed to do it! Even if it lasts legally for only a few days, weeks or months, it is permanent for us.”
Joe Lucinsky, a gay rights activist who was instrumental in starting a “gay tier” at the SF county jail where he worked in the 70’s, also tied the knot. All inmates used to be housed together, regardless of sexual orientation. He had worked with Harvey Milk, a gay activist who had been murdered at City Hall, not far from where Joe married Jeff Beighley. “We couldn’t help but think that Harvey would have been proud of the happenings at City Hall,” said Jeff, “but also felt sad that he never had the chance to publicly and ‘legally’ express his love to someone.”
Susan Darm and Carol Saint Cyr traveled to the City twice in the first week of gay weddings, but couldn’t get married because of the long lines. They finally got an appointment, and Carol’s sister made it in from Sweden. “I have not been much of a proponent of marriage, gay or straight, as the institution is obviously ailing, as evidenced by the statistics on divorce and adultery,” explains Susan. “But over our years together we have committed to each other in every way and vowed to spend our lives together. I cried when the guy that married us started reading the vows. I never thought that I would ever stand up in front of others and make those vows. I don’t know what is going to happen legally in the next days/months, but for me, I am now a married woman forever.”
Steve Muchnick was first married to a woman and then had a happy four-year relationship with another woman before he found his true love, Eric Milliren. “We’ve been together for a very, very wonderful 15-1/2 years,” says Steve, an over-accomplished computer scientist who’s HIV positive. “Neither of us has any doubt that we’ll be together as long as we both live. Getting married was wonderful, but it hasn’t affected how we feel about each other at all. We know that good relationships require hard work, and we are not afraid to do that work.”
“This certificate is for framing,” explains Bill Jones to the newlyweds, “so that when your mother comes you can say, ‘Mother, we’re not living in sin’. And this is to guard under lock and key; you might need to go before a judge to tell them that they can’t take it away.”
“Out of my cold dead hands you’re going to take this from me!” exclaimed Michelle Brodie as she held her new marriage license. “George Bush cannot tell me who I can and I can’t marry.”
Two opposition groups are suing, intending to nullify the marriages that have already occurred. The City is itself taking the issue to California’s Superior Court, claiming that state laws banning gay marriage (Proposition 22) violate the State Constitution, which guarantees equal protection and privileges for all Californians, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
“Love is bigger than government”
It all started in Massachusetts, the first US State to authorize gay marriages, after it decided that to ban gay marriage would violate their state constitution. Local officials are preparing for the weddings, which are scheduled to begin on May 17th.
A hastily-approved bill to amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriages is being voted in Massachusetts, and the issue won’t be completely decided until it goes to the popular vote in as late as 2006.
That’s if President Bush’ proposed National Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriages doesn’t go through before that. President Bush, in full re-election campaign, declared during his last State of the Union address that he would back a Constitutional definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman”. If passed, it would effectively bar any gay marriages in the US, overriding any state laws.
Newly-elected San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (36 years old, married, and Catholic) was present at Bush’s Address. The President’s declarations galvanized him into action, gathering constitutional scholars and lawyers to research their case that California’s new law against gay marriage violates the State Constitution. His own gay advisors told him he was committing “political suicide”. He responded that he didn’t care; that it wasn’t about him, but was a simple issue of human rights.
As Former Minnesota Governor and wrestler Jesse Ventura put it recently, “Love is bigger than government. Think about that.” Addressing the conservative argument that gay marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage itself, Ventura asked, “How is my marriage under attack if two gays or lesbians down the street want to make a lifelong commitment to themselves?”
In a challenge to Bush, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would be “fine” with same-sex marriage if California voters approved it. “I think those issues should be left to the state, so I have no use for a constitutional amendment.”
Unlike Schwarzenegger, Ventura thinks “civil rights issues should not be put on the ballot. We have a representative-style government. Represent your people and vote and stand by what you believe in.”
California Assemblyman Mark Leno (Democrat, San Francisco), reminded the public that in 1967, when the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriages, a New York Times poll showed that 80 percent of the American public opposed the action: “The courts and the people are not always in agreement.”
Spreading like wildfire
In the days since San Francisco, other city officials have intended to follow Newsom’s footsteps, pushing Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to declare that the US Constitution should be amended as soon as possible, because “gay marriage is spreading like wildfire.”
Given the stern Federal opposition, that fire is being stamped out as soon as the coals heat up, wherever it occurs; as in Sandoval, New Mexico, where the Attorney General declared them invalid after only fifteen weddings. Portland, Oregon, also had a short run of marriages.
The Mayor of tiny New Platz, New York, Jason West, began holding gay marriages despite a lawsuit against him for marrying people without licenses. “There’s nothing in New York state law that says that same-sex couples cannot be married,” he told National Public Radio, “and the Department of Health has taken it upon themselves to discriminate in who they issue marriage licenses to. This is in direct violation of the State Constitution, which requires equal protection under the law . . . I think it’s ridiculous to even think that anyone could go to jail for marrying people.” Nevertheless, West stopped performing the weddings after increased legal pressure.
The Constitutional “Non-Issue”
Bush’s move to ban gay marriages has been controversial on many fronts; and it has cost Bush greatly in his standing with gay Republicans -some quite influential. Mary Cheney, the Vice President’s daughter, a self-declared lesbian said back in 2000, “working together, we can expand the Republican Party’s outreach to non-traditional Republicans. We can make sexual orientation a non-issue for the Republican Party, and we can help achieve equality for all gay and lesbian Americans.”
While distancing himself from these Republicans, Bush is courting groups like the Christian Coalition, in whom he may place trust for a win in November.
Constitutional scholars don’t see a future for the idea of a National Constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. The law is very specific on how the US Constitution may be amended, and lawyers will be battling this one for some time. It would be unprecedented for the Constitution to be amended to limit rights. Previous amendments have only added rights, such as giving women the right to vote.
Many see it as a “non-issue”; “what’s the big deal? Let them get married,” while other choose to see it as a threat to “family values and the sanctity of marriage”.
Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families, one of the leading opponents of the California gay marriage effort, and a key proponent of California’s Proposition 22, banning gay marriage, disagrees. “Four-and-a-half million Californians reaffirmed the unique and important institution of marriage for a man and a woman in 2000, and they haven’t changed their minds about what’s best for the children,” said Thomasson. California had then and estimated population of 34.5 million, 25 million of them old enough to vote.
President Bush says he wants to stop “activist judges” from “changing the definition of the most enduring human institution. After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization,” the president said. “Their action has created confusion on an issue that requires clarity.”
Marriage through the ages
Anthropologists and sociologists agree that throughout human history marriage has principally and fundamentally been an economic institution. Grooms have often been married with or without consent in political or economic unions made by families; brides, with dowry to sweeten the deal, have been commodities to barter. Polygamy has actually been more common throughout the ages than monogamy, which was made popular during Roman times (both Romans and Greeks had gay unions), and with the spread of Christianity. The Bible is full of references to polygamy, like King Solomon’s “seven hundred wives, and princesses, and three hundred concubines”.
The idea of marriage as a commitment for life entered into voluntarily by a man and a woman is actually quite new; only occurring in substantive numbers over the last few hundred years. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was controversial stuff; with Juliet, at age 14, defying her father’s choice of her marriage. At the time, it just wasn’t done. Marriages arranged by families were the historical norm in many parts of the world, as they still are in great portions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Arranged marriages, though said by proponents to promote stable family relationships, are also fraught with abuse, like “bride burnings”, and female infanticide, when families are unwilling or unable to provide dowries. The idea of a marriage entered into by willing and equal partners in romantic love is fairly revolutionary; and even in the last century, has found it’s own difficulties, exemplified by the US divorce rate, in which nearly 60% of marriages end in divorce.
In San Francisco, where gay marriage protestors clashed with supporters, in response to the “sanctity of marriage” argument, one sign said simply, “Protect Marriage: Ban Divorce”. In a country where single-parent families are actually the majority, by asking which would be better: for a child to have one mother, or to have two?
The legal battle in California has only just began. California became the first US State to allow marriages between couples of different races. At that time, if you married in California, you could be arrested when you arrived home in another State. It took the Supreme Court many more years to allow interracial weddings.
These are a few of the questions in a heated and emotional national debate that has come out of the closet. Whatever gets decided here will certainly influence other governments globally; therefore, watch out, world: it could be a bridal revolution.