People of the year: Mayors for Marriage

During a year in which marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples played a major role on the political stage, three mayors were willing to lead the way by taking risks and challenging the system

BY John Caldwell

December 07 2004 12:00 AM ET

The incredible
scene of thousands of gay couples publicly celebrating
their weddings at city halls and county courthouses across
the country defined 2004 for many Americans as the
year of same-sex marriage. There was a lot of laughter
and tears; there were parties and there were protests.
And it was all due in large part to the actions of some
unlikely crusaders who took risks and challenged the system
to do what they thought was right.
“You don’t deny people their full
rights,” says San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom,
who decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples
in response to President Bush’s support of a
constitutional ban on gay marriage during his State of the
Union speech. “You don’t deny people
equal protection. That’s my belief, and I
can’t fall short of that.”
Newsom, 37, wasn’t the only mayor who
jeopardized his political career or even faced
criminal charges for the advancement of marriage.
Jason West, the 27-year-old mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., a
small village about 75 miles north of Manhattan, soon
followed Newsom’s lead and married 25 gay
couples before he was ordered to stop. And John Shields,
the 61-year-old openly gay mayor of nearby Nyack, N.Y., with
his partner, Bob Streams, joined nine other gay
couples who are parties to a high-profile lawsuit to
win the right to marry in New York State.
Meet The Advocate’s 2004 people of
the year: the mayors. Sounding and acting a lot more
like gay rights activists than public servants,
Newsom, West, and Shields share a similar passion for
civil rights, valuing consistency and action. And all three
reject the idea of civil unions as an unacceptable
second-class status for gay Americans. During a
one-month period in February and March they provided
gay and lesbian couples with hope, security, and the chance
to be a part of something they had long desired: the
institution of marriage.
And they took heat for it. Some members of
Newsom’s own Democratic Party accused him of
giving evangelicals a reason to go to the polls and
thus costing John Kerry the presidential election. But the
handsome and congenial mayor calmly shrugs that off.
The state’s constitution requires equality in
marriage, and that’s all that matters, he
argues. Besides, he adds, Kerry lost because he
wasn’t a strong candidate. “Bill Clinton
said it best years ago,” Newsom says.
“The American people always support strong and wrong
versus weak and right. The Bush administration did an
extraordinary job to make it appear that Kerry was
weak. That is what swung this election, not the issue
of gay marriage.”
West agrees. “If you’re always
going to be afraid of a backlash, you’re always
going to be afraid to take action of any sort,”
he says. “Our opponents won. But it’s not
because of a backlash. It’s because they outorganized us.”
“Tell me a social issue where anybody
ever said ‘This is the right
time’?” adds Shields. “They always cop
out by saying this is not the right time. Kerry
lost the election for a lot of reasons. And President
Bush is the one who put this issue on the front burner.”
Indeed, the marriage equality movement in 2004
wasn’t limited to the actions of these three
men. Massachusetts became the first state to begin
providing full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples,
and same-sex marriage lawsuits began working their way
through the courts in over a half-dozen other states.
And there were victories for the other side, including
the passage of 13 state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
It also was a year in which attitudes changed.
The once-controversial notion of providing civil
unions to gays suddenly became safe political ground
for many politicians—even President Bush. And there
were other marriage crusaders who bear mention,
including Sandoval County, N.M., clerk Victoria Dunlap
and Multnomah County, Ore., commission chair Diane
Linn—before being ordered to stop by courts, both
risked their careers by issuing marriage licenses to
gay couples. Chicago mayor Richard Daley expressed
lukewarm support for same-sex marriage, even signing a
petition to allow it before claiming he hadn’t read
it. And Seattle mayor Greg Nickels ordered recognition
of gay city employees’ marriages performed elsewhere.
But it was Newsom, West, and Shields who gained
much of the media spotlight and who won the hearts and
minds of gays and lesbians everywhere. “I think
their actions will be judged by history as nothing but
heroic,” says Cheryl Jacques, executive director of
the national gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.
“They helped many Americans take that giant
leap forward of coming to the understanding that when
gay and lesbian couples marry, it is no big deal.”
That hero status, conferred on Newsom shortly
after he launched his crusade on February 12, is
something that he soundly rejects. Sitting in a small
leather armchair inside his ornately appointed office,
surrounded by photos of family and friends, including
one of himself with former president Clinton, Newsom
squeezes in an interview with The Advocate at the end
of a long November day. He likes to gesture with his hands
as he speaks softly about the need to do what he did.
“I can assure you that I do not see myself as a
hero,” he says. “There’s nothing
heroic about doing the right thing. If there’s
something wrong, we try to right it. It’s
simple. I don’t see anything heroic about it. I
see something purposeful about it. And appropriate.”
Son of William Newsom, a well-known local judge,
Gavin grew up in San Francisco and received a degree
in political science at nearby Santa Clara University
in 1989. He opened the city’s popular PlumpJack
Wine Shop in 1992, successfully expanding it to several
locations and vending it to restaurants around the Bay
Area. Prior to winning a tough campaign for mayor late
last year, Newsom was elected three times to the San
Francisco board of supervisors beginning in 1996, during
which time he befriended openly gay supervisor Bevan
Dufty. “I have a tremendous amount of affection
for the guy,” says Dufty, 49, who describes
himself as Newsom’s “gay big brother.”
“He’s an incredible student of government
history and politics. He stymies me when he frequently
can invoke Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King. He
reads books three or four times, and he jokes about
how he likes to underline things and take notes.”
Newsom values the city’s reputation of
inclusion and diversity, Dufty says, so he
wasn’t surprised when the mayor issued marriage
licenses. “I see him as a real San
Franciscan,” Dufty says. “I think
that’s really central to who he is. I really believe
he did it out of his core beliefs.”
Newsom married noted legal analyst Kimberly
Guilfoyle in 2001, an experience that he says gave him
an added appreciation for what his gay friends
didn’t have. “My marriage is not a civil
union,” he says. “I don’t want a civil
union. I like marriage. We had a two-hour ceremony at
the largest Catholic church in San Francisco. To have
gone through that experience and to have enjoyed the
social recognition, that says something about our
commitment. That experience certainly affected me. And
that’s why I say we really can’t fall
short of the goal of gay marriage.”
San Francisco’s same-sex marriage
licensing was shut down by the California supreme
court on March 11. The court later ruled that Newsom
lacked the authority to issue the licenses and invalidated
all of them. Many of the married gay couples were
crushed by the news, and a growing number of pundits
and politicians, including Newsom himself, have since
questioned his political future. “Anyone who ever
wants to run against me will use this as an issue with
which they can divide and conquer,” Newsom
says. “I didn’t do this to make a
political career. I did this because it was the gift of a
lifetime to be able to do what I thought was
right—to be able to advance principles I
believe in.”
Lynn Vavreck, 36, an assistant political science
professor at the University of California, Los
Angeles, isn’t convinced that what Newsom,
West, or Shields did will cost them politically.
“It’s true that most Americans are not in
support of same-sex marriages,” she says.
“But I think it has a lot to do with how things
are going in other areas [of their jobs]. It would surprise
me that people would throw out a successful mayor on
this one issue.”
West, a member of the Green Party, says he
isn’t worried. In fact, some in his progressive
college town have said that providing same-sex
marriage may have actually cemented his political future,
which West hopes will include a second term as mayor.
An idealist who believes in holding politicians
accountable, West, who is heterosexual, spent a lot of
his interview with The Advocate talking about his
disdain for a marriage equality movement that supports
candidates who don’t support full marriage
rights. “Unfortunately, too many gay
organizations are willing to concede,” he says.
“When they endorse John Kerry, who says
he’s opposed to gay marriage, that means they
don’t have a bottom line.”
The soft-spoken West was born and raised in
Latham, N.Y., near Albany. He became an activist at
age 6 when he convinced his family not to eat at
McDonald’s because it used Styrofoam containers that
he believed hurt the environment. “This is the
type of person that Jason is,” says his sister,
Amanda West, 25. “Even if it doesn’t
make a difference to a lot of people, it makes a difference
to him. He’s always been determined.”
West graduated from the State University of New
York at New Paltz in 1999 with degrees in art and
history. He worked as a housepainter and a puppeteer
in local theater for several years before becoming mayor of
the small Hudson Valley village of about 6,000 in June
2003; it’s a part-time position with a meager
$18,000 annual salary. He had long advocated for
gays’ right to marry, and when he decided to follow
Newsom’s lead at the end of February by marrying
same-sex couples, his job suddenly became full-time.
West and a part-time staff of four worked 18-hour days
seven days a week for about a month and a half,
dealing with the couples, protests, gay rights groups, and
the media. “I never expected that when I
announced my intention to marry the couples, I would
do something like nine drive-time interviews on radio
[that first day],” West says. “Within several
hours there were seven satellite trucks parked outside
Village Hall.”
After West spent one week marrying gay couples,
an Ulster County judge ordered a stop to it, and New
York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer later issued
an opinion against West. Undaunted, more than 200 people
from the area showed up to volunteer their services. Kay
Greenleaf, a lesbian Unitarian Universalist minister
from nearby Poughkeepsie, took over performance of the
ceremonies. “It was an incredible
relief,” says West. “It brought tears to my
eyes knowing that this was not going to die.”
Those volunteers formed their own organization
called the New Paltz Equality Initiative. They
continue to marry gay couples, working with local
clergy from about half a dozen denominations. Greenleaf,
West, and another Unitarian minister, Dawn Sangrey,
were charged in March with the crime of illegally
“solemnizing” same-sex marriages. In an
important legal victory for the marriage equality movement,
a judge threw out the charges in July while sharply
criticizing the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
In September another judge refused to invalidate what
has become more than 200 marriages unless the plaintiff in
the case, represented by the Jerry
Falwell–connected Liberty Counsel, names all
couples in the suit, which would allow each to argue their
case in court. That hasn’t happened.
“The statute in New York defines marriage
as a contract between parties,” West says.
“There’s no mention of man and woman.
There’s so much evidence that New York law allows
this. This is the last piece that’s missing. On
everything else the [state] courts have ruled in favor
of gays and lesbians.”
Shields, a Democrat, was hoping the courts would
see it that way when he joined the fray. Spurred by
what Newsom and West were doing, he had announced
plans to marry gay couples in his small village, which is
about 25 miles north of New York City on the Hudson
River. But Spitzer’s opposition to West brought
the threat of arrest, so Shields decided to take his
fight to the courts. He formed what became known as the
“Nyack 10,” a group of gay couples who went to
the county courthouse on March 4 and were denied
marriage licenses. They sued the state, losing on
appeal in October. “I felt disappointed,”
Shields says, noting that he plans to appeal the decision to
the state’s highest court. “The judge
ruled on the case for political reasons. He released
that decision 10 days before he ran for a judgeship in
Rockland County. But that only made my resolve even stronger.”
Born in Harrisburg, Pa., Shields joined the Army
three years out of high school but was honorably
discharged after eight weeks when he disclosed that he
is gay. He moved to New York City, where he taught high
school English for 30 years. Early on, he befriended
Gloria Rodriguez, the now–56-year-old wife of a
coworker who made Shields their son’s
godfather. “I like the idea that he stands up for
equal rights,” she says. “When you ask
someone to be the godparent of your child, you want
someone that your child can look up to. I see him as a leader.”
Rodriguez and others say they weren’t
surprised by Shields’s marriage crusade;
he’s an idealistic man who has long supported
social justice causes. “After I was elected mayor in
2001, I realized I could perform marriages but I
couldn’t marry my own partner,” Shields
says. “Then the president began to say he
wanted a constitutional amendment, and Gavin Newsom and
Jason West started to marry people. I’m doing
this because it’s the right thing to do. And
the village has been so supportive. A local filmmaker
even made a documentary about me called The Mayor of
Gomorrah,
which he shows in his coffee shop.”
What Shields, West, and Newsom did will likely
hold its own place in history, says UCLA’s
Vavreck. “During the civil rights movement
African-Americans had to go to extreme measures outside of
their jurisdictions to make change,” she says.
“In the South it was the local politicians who
were opposing them. So this is really
different. This is local politicians wanting to extend
rights to a community that doesn’t already have them.”
West, who was voted one of America’s
“50 Hottest Bachelors” by People
magazine in June, agrees that what he did was akin to
helping black activists take a seat at a
Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1960s. But
it’s a reluctant comparison. “My risk
was so much less,” he says, noting that he too
doesn’t feel comfortable being called a hero.
“They were getting shot at and chased out of
town. The only risk I took was a small political
gamble.” West has spent the last six months touring
the country, speaking at gay events, and working on a book
due out next year about democracy in America.
Still smarting from the election results, some
politicians and gay rights leaders have been
cautioning the marriage equality movement to slow down.
It’s advice that doesn’t sit well with Newsom.
“Why would you ever slow down on
equality?” he asks, raising his voice for the
first time during the interview. “Why would we ever
not fight for our rights? How dare we suggest that
someone who was born gay or lesbian or bisexual or
transgender be part of a separate class that
doesn’t get full protection and equal rights? I
totally dismiss that. We’ve made so much
progress. Let’s not stop here. Let’s
hold politicians accountable. We’re not giving up.
I’m not giving up.”
That includes continuing to argue his case in
court while publicly advocating for marriage equality,
Newsom says. “I’ve seen a lot of minds
change,” he says, including that of his own
conservative Irish Catholic father, who at first opposed
Newsom’s action but now agrees with it.
“So many people didn’t understand the
significance of this until they experienced it in the
newspapers and on TV. They watched sons and daughters weep
as their mother got married to someone she’s
loved for 15 or 20 years. I’m very proud of
that. I would never have wanted to deny that
experience to those couples and to the world. I believe so
strongly in that. It’s the right thing to do.
And I believe that the supreme court in California
will ultimately agree.”

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