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California Gay
Marriages Begin Today

California Gay
Marriages Begin Today


Gay and lesbian couples throughout California are preparing to head to the altar as the state adopts marriage equality beginning today at 5 p.m.

"We have breaking news! We're gonna get married!"

If you call the Davis, Calif., home of Shelly Bailes, 67, and Ellen Pontac, 66, today, that's the voice mail recording you'll hear. But if you wait until this evening, you'll get a greeting that includes two words both women have waited more than three decades to say: "My wife."

At 5 p.m. today California's supreme court ruling goes into effect, the words "Party A" and "Party B" replace "bride" and "groom" on marriage licenses, and wedding bells will start ringing for same-sex couples throughout California. And at 5:01, Bailes and Pontac will be the first same-sex couple to say "I do" in Yolo County.

First Marriage Minutes

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom was the first to question whether it might be possible to start marrying couples at the close of Monday's workday rather than waiting until the morning of June 17. And when the state gave counties the go-ahead, Yolo County clerk-recorder Freddie Oakley was the first clerk outside San Francisco to jump on the idea. "I thought, why should these couples have to wait any longer," she says. "If they want to get hitched, let's hitch 'em up."

Sonoma County clerk-recorder-assessor Janice Atkinson was inspired to move forward after she got a call from a couple who told her that June 16 was their 15-year anniversary. "I felt like if it's legal and we can start," she says, "then the question wasn't why would I but why wouldn't I." Atkinson will be marrying that couple, Chris Lechman and Mark Gren, at 5:01 tonight. "She was so gracious and so wonderful," says Lechman. "So I told her I'd love for you to do our ceremony and make history with us."

Late last week, Alameda County clerk-recorder Patrick O'Connell announced that his office would allow same-sex couples to start marrying June 16 at 6 p.m. To mark the momentous event, the first ceremonies will be officiated by Oakland mayor Ronald Dellums at Oakland City Hall with congresswoman Barbara Lee and other elected officials serving as witnesses.

And on June 12, Acting Registrar-Recorder-Clerk Dean Logan announced that Los Angeles would issue the first same-sex marriage license to Robin Tyler and Diane Olson. The couple were plaintiffs in a 2004 lawsuit that was consolidated with the San Francisco lawsuit that led to the state supreme court ruling. The couple, who have been together for 15 years, will be married by a rabbi in front of the Beverly Hills courthouse at 5:01 p.m. Logan issued the early license to Tyler, a longtime gay activist, and her partner, who is the granddaughter of a former California governor, "in recognition of their unique role in the court's decision."

San Francisco is gearing up for a huge media event when Mayor Gavin Newsom will officiate at the marriage ceremony of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in his office at 5:01. The two women, who are both in their 80s and who have been together for 55 years, are widely recognized as the founding mothers of the lesbian rights movement. They were the first couple to be married in San Francisco when Mayor Newsom decided to challenge the state's law. That ceremony was a private event that was then announced to the world. This time, they will have their family members and friends there to celebrate with them.

Tuesday Marriage Rush

Elsewhere on Monday night, thousands of couples, along with their florists, bakers, tailors, and wedding organizers, will be writing vows, hemming dresses and suit jackets, and putting the final flourishes on wedding cakes and floral arrangements in preparation for Tuesday's marriage rush.

As they get ready for what is expected to be California's highest-ever volume wedding day and week, a number of the state's 58 county clerks have announced extended hours. Some also plan to have extra staff and volunteers on hand. Some counties, like San Diego and Orange County, are taking reservations for marriage licenses and marriage ceremonies. Others, like Los Angeles, will operate on a first come-first served basis.

In San Diego County, 177 couples have booked appointments. The clerk's office isn't sure how many are for same-sex couples. However, according to assistant director Sandra Banaga, a typical June day might have 70 ceremonies and the number of appointments already surpasses their highest ever Valentine's Day of 151 marriages.

To keep up with the demand, San Diego has extended its hours on Tuesday. Tom Felkner and Bob Lehman garnered the first time slot -- 7:00 a.m.

The couple, who celebrated their 15th anniversary on May 18, had never considered marrying anywhere other than San Diego. "We've always felt that we deserved the right to get married in our hometown," says Felkner. "We weren't going to settle for anything else than the same equal rights as our neighbors, so we've been holding out for this day."

Lehman is a former marine, and the couple asked Tom's brother, a Marine Corps retiree, to officiate. "It's our version of a military wedding."

Family members and close friends will attend the ceremony, and the two men will each read vows they wrote. But Tuesday night the couple will host a very large reception. "We are opening it up and playing host to any other couples who are getting married," says Lehman. "We wanted this to be a community celebration." In lieu of gifts, the couple are asking for donations to Equality for All's "Vow to Vote No" campaign to fight the November ballot initiative that, if it passes, would bring the wedding rush to an abrupt halt. "We've been together for so long," says Lehman, "and it means more to us to have people" help us fight marriage equality.

In Contra Costa County, Stephen L. Weir knows that he and his partner, John Hemm, will be the first to marry on Tuesday morning. That's because Weir is the county clerk-recorder. "I'm first in line," he jokes, "because I have the key." He and his partner will marry at 8:30 a.m. Weir, a Scotsman, will wear the family kilt; Hemm will don a tuxedo. His staff will celebrate his wedding and then get back to work, as they will have 14 more same-sex couples to marry that day.

Weir and Hemm, who recently celebrated their 18th anniversary, started acquiring a hope chest. "We have the rings and the china," says Weir. "We've had the dude figurines for the cake for 10 years." Now they've finally got the wedding date. "I had doubts this would ever happen in my work life, or in my life at all," says Weir, who is 59. "So this is personally very exciting."

Projections and Protests

The marriages that take place in California are expected to result in tens of thousands of glowing brides and grooms. They will also be a gold rush of sorts for the ailing California economy. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, and drawing on past experience in other states, the University of California, Los Angeles, Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy predicts that about 51,319 same-sex couples living in California will marry over the next thee years and that they will be joined by 67,513 couples from other states. And these weddings, the institute reports, will boost the economy of the state by over $683 million over the next three years and bring in about $63.8 million in local and state taxes

Media throughout the state have reported that along with many county clerks' offices, hotels, wedding planners, florists, caterers, and others are seeing an uptick in business and looking at ways to capture this new market. Meanwhile, Evans Hotels, which owns the five-diamond Lodge at Torrey Pines as well as two other hotels and resort boats in San Diego, has announced it will donate 5% of the proceeds it receives from same-sex couples to an organization fighting the ballot initiative.

County officials are also preparing for antigay individuals and groups who are expected to protest same-sex weddings. Ronald Brocke, who drove his anti-same-sex marriage "Marriage Mobile" around the San Francisco Civic Center as the state supreme court heard the marriage equality case, told the Marin Independent Journal that he intends to embark on a 15-county tour of county clerks' offices to protest same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, omnipresent antigay protester Fred Phelps, who heads the Westboro Baptist Church, has scheduled protests on Monday from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. at San Francisco City Hall. On Tuesday, Phelps's group intends to protest from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. at Weir's office in Martinez and then again at San Francisco's City Hall.

The clerks in Butte and Kern counties both made headlines nationwide when they announced they would stop performing all marriages on June 17 rather than start marrying same-sex couples. Both clerks said their decision was due to budgetary reasons. As required by law, both counties will continue to issue marriage licenses. (Conducting ceremonies has always been optional.) But they might not have that many takers. Butte County couple Linda and Vickie Mandy-Heath will be getting married on July 5. But they are going to go to a different county to get their license. "Why should we support a county that won't support us?" says Linda. "I'd rather give another county my money."

Love Hits the Road

Bailes and Pontac, who have been together for 34 years, will be the first of seven couples who marry in Yolo County on Monday night. The couple went to Vermont in 2000 when that state approved civil unions and made a commitment to one another there on July 14. In 2002 they become domestic partners in San Francisco, and in 2004 they were back in the city as the 45th couple to get married on February 12. But none of those ceremonies, they say, was as fun and as exciting as this one will be. "For years, we've walked by the beautiful wedding room at the county recorder's office and would look in," says Bailes. "To know that we can marry there is wonderful."

On June 21 the couple will have a wedding reception. And everyone in Davis is welcome. "The building holds close to 400 people, and we are hoping to fill it," says Pontac. The couple will have several wedding cakes. But they don't want gifts. Instead, they will ask friends and family members to celebrate their wedding by donating to their nonprofit organization For Gay Equality. That will allow them to spend the summer and fall going around the state talking to other seniors about the ballot initiative and marriage equality. "We think that if we can speak to other seniors one-on-one they won't vote against us," says Bailes, adding that she and Pontac want them to understand "that we are just as happy as everyone else and that our love is just the same." (Sue Rochman, The Advocate)

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