Op-ed: Why Gavin Newsom Is as Much a Gay Rights Hero as Harvey Milk
I’ve had five weddings, two wives, one husband (but only two spouses — figure that one out), one legal marriage, three domestic-partnership certificates, and one ex-wife. I know, just add a rabbi and a little person and it sounds like one of those offensive jokes from a beginner comic at one of those tragically funny open mike nights.
Let me back up. I fell in love with a girl at 18. We moved in together immediately, because even though I didn’t admit it yet, I was already a U-Haul Lesbian. Soon we considered ourselves as committed and loving as any straight couple, and we fought ferverently for our rights to have our relationships recognized — as a domestic partnership. We had no idea marriage was an option. At the time, domestic partnership, a seperate and not quite equal option, was the best of what was possible (and in many states it still is).
Tina and I never married. I never dreamed of weddings anyway. No white dresses, flower girls, Sappho poetry as readings. For the four years we were together, our parents never met and none of them recognized our relationship as a marriage, but we did. Sort of. Once we were out we became paragons of the community. They called us young leaders and role models because of our "long-term" relationship (which lasted four years). We felt like we knew everything (as young people often do) and gave advice to other young people, especially teenagers about coming out, being an activist, and having a healthy relationship. Though we have called each other "my ex-wife" for almost two decades now, while married we never really used that word because we really didn't think gay people got married.
Tina and I broke up, and I fell in love with another woman and moved in immediately. We drove to West Hollywood, then the only place that offered domestic partnerships. Even though we didn’t live there and the rights it granted wouldn’t actually extend to us, we were thrilled. We held a private ceremony, just us and the dog, and later went to a carnival where we posed beneath a “Just Married” sign. It seemed like an amazing day, in part because of this certificate that proved our committment.
Later we moved to San Francisco, which by then also offered domestic partnerships, so we registered there as well. When the state of California enacted a statewide registry, it invalidated those other two partnerships, making us register with the state.
Slowly we started to get wind of marriage equality and jumped onboard as activists, mostly as advocacy journalists spreading the word. It was the 1990s in San Francisco, and I started to realize that although I called Suzy my wife, we had few protections outside the city.
Around this time, I met Gavin Newsom, who is currently California’s 49th lieutenant governor. Back in 1996, he was on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. I lived there and was running my first lesbian magazine, Girlfriends, in the Mission District, where crime was a little high and we often had to walk past (or over) groups of homeless men to get into our tiny upstairs office on Cesar Chavez Street. Newsom and I were both coming into our own power in the city, only his power came with more clout and money.
I did not like him. He was too handsome, had too much money, and most importantly was behind a new program called Care Not Cash, which eliminated welfare assistance to the city’s homeless population and became a euphemism for all that was wrong in the city. We had been essentially homeless for our first six months in San Francisco, so I was keenly aware of how important assistance was to low-income people trying to live in a city with a 99% occupancy rate.
That same year, we got wind that San Francisco’s then-mayor, Willie Brown, was going to marry long-term gay and lesbian couples — did we want to participate? We hadn’t been together quite a decade yet, but we begged to get married. Brown was fulfilling a campaign promise, and he presided over the ceremony for about 150 couples (many of whom had been together decades). The marriages weren’t recognized anywhere, but it was an act of rebellion and pride and protest. And after burying so many of our friends, lost to AIDS during the height of it, the phrase “in sickness and in health” took on a special meaning.
Suzy and I both wore white dresses and carried flowers. Our maid of honor, Athena, and best man, Jeff, were witnesses, and when we were pronounced spouses for life we both cried a bit. Then we both turned to the TV cameras and told CBS why this day, technically my second wedding ceremony, had the most impact.
The marriage was never legal, but it was a rallying cry that meant domestic partnership would now never be enough.
We had a reception, a store-bought cake, a party with friends. We sent our family photos afterwards and let them know what happened. I don’t know if we got responses or not, but if we did, they were not filled with giant wedding gifts and congratulation cards.
Nearly a decade after we met, Newsom, Brown’s protégé, had grown on me. During his 2003 mayoral campaign and as he presided over the cirty, he shared some great ideas about rights for the LGBT community. I was still shocked when, a month after he took office, someone called me and said, “Gavin Newsom’s office just called you. He is going to be marrying people. Del and Phyllis are first.”
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were lesbian institutions in San Francisco and legends in lesbian publishing. They were together 55 years before Martin passed away in 2008; founded the first lesbian political organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in 1955; edited The Ladder (the first real lesbian magazine); and had served the National Organization for Women as the first lesbian couple to do so. They remained active, serving on the White House Conference on Aging. Martin even led the charge in demanding that the American Psychiatric Association stop treating homosexuality as a mental illness. I got teary-eyed knowing they’d finally be legally wed.
And I wanted it for myself. So we threw on clothes and ran to the car. Everyone at my office was crying, racing from our South of Market building to San Francisco City Hall. Everyone was afraid to slow down; we had no idea how long this would last, before City Hall or some state official shut us down and called it all off.
The lines in, out, and around City Hall were enormous, but they were joyful and terrifically festive. As we all waited hours (many, many hours), florists began arriving and giving us all bouquets. Turns out strangers from around the country were ordering flowers to randomly deliver to the same-sex couples getting married. Everybody was suddenly friends with everyone; we all knew that this was history in the making.
New York has Stonewall, but San Francisco has City Hall, which has been the site of so many LGBT history-making moments. Sadly, it’s where Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated in 1978. But in 2004 we reclaimed City Hall for them and the global LGBT community by demanding our marriage rights — something neither man had probably even imagined possible in their time.
Once we made it into the gorgeous gilded rotunda from outside City Hall, we could hear other people getting married. They were everywhere, most having short ceremonies right there. Religious leaders, especially from the Unitarian Universalists and Metropolitan Community Church but also others from relgions as diverse as Judaism and Wicca, were on hand to help marry couples. Each time two people were declared “Spouses for life” a cheer would go up around then. Each wedding was a stake in the battle for full equality and we knew it.
People from around the country began flying in and driving in, everyone not knowing if they’d make it in time. But as so much joy filled City Hall, Newsom began taking hits from critics; conservatives thought it was the apocalypse (of course), and some LGBT groups though his actions worked against establishing marriage equality. I did not. I thought it was brilliant. On March 11, after San Francisco had married about 4,000 couples, the California Supreme Court stopped the weddings, and five months later it voided our marriages.
Four years later, the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the constitutional right to marry. That June, Martin and Lyon, again, were the first to marry in San Francisco. Everyone again rushed from the office after getting a tip about Del and Phyllis. Everyone celebrated, kissed, let reporters follow them around, and knew they were legally wed — until they weren’t.
Proposition 8, the California ballot measure, passed that November after a bloody, polarizing battle in which many LGBT Californians realized who their true friends were. It changed the California constitution to say that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the state.
More weddings down the drain.
But something else had happened to us in the meantime. Suzy had come out — as a transgender man. Suddenly I had no wife, I had a husband named Jake. And after his transition was under way, we had to decide if we’d marry again. In California — unlike some states — opposite-sex couples in which one person is trans have little difficulty marrying. So getting a marriage license was a piece of cake.
But we now we had a moral quandary. Through a fluke called gender reassignment, we now had rights that our LGB friends did not. So was it fair to marry? Should we hold out until everyone could marry in California? We turned to our friends and fellow activists and asked them. Everyone knew we had battled for marriage rights for years and had always tried to get more recognition for our relationship. in part so that we didn’t have to trust our family to do the right thing if one of us dies or is hospitalized and so we can consolidate our damn student loans (I had battled Sallie Mae for years trying to do so as a same-sex couple, something it still refuses to allow, I believe).
Uniformly, all our friends and colleagues told us to marry. So we did.
After 16 years together, we had lived in five different states, had four committment ceremonies, and one of us had lived in two different genders (well, one gender and two different gender presentations might be more accurate). So I was confident that this would be our last wedding ceremony, and I did it big.
I wore a knockoff Monique Lhuillier dress, we had 10 bridesmaids and groomsmen, our best man and maid of honor from our 1996 wedding flew down to serve in the same capacity, and the reception featured a five-tier wedding cake (the cake toppers depicted a black man and a white woman, neither of which we are), retro sodas, and colors inspired by Wham! because we’re just that old and into the ’80s.
The least we could do to make sure we were working with people from cake designers to stationery printers who also worked with LGBT couples. Jake’s family is Catholic, so we looked for a priest who would marry us, but with the caveat that he would also marry same-sex couples. We found a priest, by the way, in the White Robed Monks order who welcomed same-sex couples. His readings were lovely, universal, and pleased my in-laws.
Honestly, for us, a wedding changed everything. We suddenly had privileges we didn’t even know existed until that day. Sixteen years as a lesbian couple hadn’t prepared us for how seriously people react to a real, legal wedding. The types of privileges we got — including the tiny ones that simply make life easier — are too numerous to list here, but ones that we know we utilize every single day.
Above: California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a rally after hearing results from the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on gay marriage Wednesday in San Francisco City Hall.
I thought of Brown and Newsom on our wedding day — the road they put us on by giving us rights we didn’t realize we could have as a queer couple (yes, even though he’s a boy and I’m a girl, Jake and I still identify as a queer couple).
Yesterday, Newsom said he “took a moment to savor this final step in the long march towards justice. It is truly an emotionally staggering day.” It was for everyone. I've been married to the same person for 22 years now and I can tell you that while a wedding is just one day, a marriage is a lifetime if you do it right. Having the right to that institution can never be underestimated.
Newsom knew back in 2004 that marrying same-sex couples would lead to litigation, but he said, “Discrimination and inequality is as much about people as it is the law, and in marrying Phyllis Lyon and the late Del Martin, a loving committed couple of 50 years, we put a human face to marriage inequality. The human faces — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, grandchildren — have turned the cultural and political tide of this country. The monumental shift in public opinion during the last decade is a tribute to the hard work of LGBT activists and allies who continue to battle at the ballot box for equal treatment under the law — state by state, vote by vote. LGBT communities across this nation have won over individuals of all religious and political persuasions by rationally advancing that there is no basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of the basic rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.”
I’m thrilled with everyone who led the charge against Prop. 8 (and the Defense of Marriage Act), from activists like my friend Robin Tyler (who, with her wife, Diane Olson, became the first lesbian couple married in Los Angeles County in 2008), to the attorneys and activists like Ted Olson, David Boies, and the American Federation for Equal Rights, but I have a special place in my heart for Gavin Newsom, the pretty boy who made power meterosexuality popular in politics. The guy I underestimated in the early ’90s changed my life — and yours too, even if you don’t know it. Someday we’ll all live without discrimination over who we love and we can thank, at least in part, Newsom for that.
He didn’t die for the cause, he wasn’t as radical or progressive as Harvey Milk, but in my book he’s as much a gay rights hero.
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALL is the editor in chief of HIV Plus magazine and the Advocate's editor at large.