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People of the
year: Mayors for Marriage

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

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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