A year after he made San Francisco a bull's-eye in the national debate over same-sex marriage, Mayor Gavin Newsom plans to mark the first anniversary of the city's "Winter of Love" with a show of defiance on the issue that, for better or worse, has defined his political career. The Democratic mayor has invited the nearly 8,000 gays and lesbians from across the country who accepted his offer to get married in San Francisco last year to a February 12 reception at City Hall, where he'll give a speech that calls for regaining the momentum of those heady days. He'll give a similar gay rights address at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government on Tuesday.
Newsom still gets blamed by some politicians for feeding the backlash that led to 11 states passing anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments last November. Some fellow Democrats still tell him his gay marriage advocacy is a losing proposition. But the mayor says he feels obliged to keep speaking publicly about gay rights. "I have people all the time giving me advice--'Get off the subject, you don't want to be defined by this one subject,"' Newsom, 37, said in an interview. "My response is, Why would I ever get off the subject? How could I, in good conscience, get off the subject of equality?"
Newsom was only five weeks into his first term when he told his staff to begin sanctioning same-sex marriages on February 12, 2004, the day gay activists observe as "Freedom to Marry Day." The first wedding, between pioneering lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon, 80, and Del Martin, 84, was performed in secret so it could be completed without court intervention. By day's end, 87 jubilant gay and lesbian couples, many with children in tow, had promised to be "spouses for life."
After four weeks and 3,955 weddings, the California supreme court halted the unprecedented wedding spree, and in August the court voided all the marriages, ruling that Newsom had overstepped his authority. San Francisco's short-lived experiment, which preceded the court-mandated legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts by three months and five days, gave Americans their first glimpse at what such unions might look like--delighting some and outraging others.
Margot McShane, 35, and Alexandra D'Amario, 39, were the first same-sex couple to go public with their City Hall wedding, wearing jeans and brilliant smiles as they took their vows before a crowd of television cameras. D'Amario was five months' pregnant at the time. Now the Napa couple have 6 1/2-month-old twins and regard February 12 as their wedding anniversary, even though the court
vacated their marriage license. "I feel pretty smart that I married her," McShane said. "We will definitely
Outside the anniversary parties, gay men and lesbians face an uncertain legal future in California and nationally. A judge in San Francisco could rule any day on lawsuits by the city and a dozen same-sex couples that seek to give Californians the same marriage rights as Massachusetts residents. A bill in the legislature also would overturn the state's one-man, one-woman marriage law.
Same-sex marriage opponents, meanwhile, want state lawmakers to extend the existing gay marriage ban to the California constitution, where it could be undone only by voters, and strip same-sex couples registered as domestic partners in California of the spousal rights they now enjoy. Both sides are planning rallies and other events in conservative areas of the state this month. "When it comes to the marriage issue, the people of California are on our side, and they are the silent majority," said Benjamin Lopez of the Traditional Values Coalition. "You won't see them perhaps as vocal as some of us are on the right and the left, but when it when it comes to voting privately in the ballot box I am confident they would vote overwhelmingly in favor of limiting marriage to one man and one woman."
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is concerned--it has identified 17 more states, including California, as being at "significant risk" of passing anti-gay marriage amendments, and President George Bush, in his State of the Union address this week, reiterated his support for changing the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Matt Foreman, the task force's executive director, said Newsom did "the right and courageous thing" by allowing the gay weddings last year, but the setbacks have forced the movement to reassess its strategy, pushing for rights that conservatives might find less objectionable, like federal protections in housing, employment, hospital visitation, and other areas. "I was profoundly moved by those images of people waiting to get married [in San Francisco], and most of us thought it would forever change the way in which the public viewed this issue," Foreman said. "But what we learned is that the public did not see it that way, and that's what's been a very heart-wrenching revelation, that so many people saw it not for what we saw it, but for a stunt."
Still, several prominent gay rights advocates welcome Newsom's out-front approach. "One of the most fascinating aspects of the whole past year is that the greatest apologists for standing against full equality in some cases have been gay people," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "To have the mayor--straight, white, relatively privileged, with very little
political capital to gain by doing so--standing up repeatedly in the face of criticism, refusing to wither, and holding firm his convictions is a very inspiring lesson."
For his part, Newsom, who was chosen as one of The Advocate's "People of the Year" in December, said he won't back down. He sees same-sex marriage as the dominant civil rights struggle of his time. "If I'm the guy with the arrows in the back, so be it," he said. "The day I stop is the day the U.S. Supreme Court does the right thing and adjudicates that the full protection of the Constitution should be afforded to all." (Lisa Leff, AP)