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D-Day, San Francisco

D-Day, San Francisco


Galvanized by the Prop. 8 loss, writer Chloe Harris takes to the streets of San Francisco to usher in a bold new day in the fight for marriage equality.

Yesterday -- May 26, 2009 -- was a long day for California equality devotees.

In San Francisco, the morning began at the Castro's St. Francis Lutheran Church, particularly warm out. A kind lesbian doled out sunscreen, and we were treated to an invocation from the Pacific School of Religion's Rev. Roland Stringfellow.

By noon, my still-legal spouse and I stood sunburned at the intersection of Van Ness and Grove, live-twittering the arrest of that same clergyman, who was the first of more than 170 demonstrators to be escorted to a fleet of waiting paddy wagons.

At five that evening, the good reverend was fresh from jail and back at the podium to carry on the fight at the now chilly steps of City Hall.

Even before sunrise, emotions varied in temperature to match the offbeat San Francisco weather. Many noted having slept little, if at all, in anticipation of the California Supreme Court's rule on Proposition 8. Just before 10 a.m., when the decision was set for release, we were crammed against a police barricade on the courthouse steps with hundreds of impatient advocates balancing their iPhones and Nikons along with the morning's first coffee.

I married my honey on October 18, 2008, and we have seen our marriage put to a vote before. Back in familiar territory, and with so many couples and families whose fate seemed to hang in the air, we counted down the minutes until those bulky paper copies of the court's decision would materialize from the powers that remained hidden inside those old stone walls. I couldn't help but wonder if this was a countdown to our divorce. I felt sick to my stomach and tweeted as much.

I wasn't the only one.

When the press releases landed at the fingertips of the blockaded press corps, the throng of mostly Prop 8 opponents held their breath for an eternal moment, searching the journalists' faces for the slightest clue to the new law of the land. A kind-hearted reporter sought us out to whisper the result: The ban on same-sex marriage would stand.

But so would our marriage and the marriages of some 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who said "I do" before the November 4 election.

Fingers shaking, we again tweeted the news ("Bittersweet") as a wallop of boos, tears and a "that's great, butaEUR|" sentiment took hold of the crowd. The media clamored for photo opps as longtime couples -- many with their families, children and friends in tow -- sought solace in each other's arms.

Notable were the several marriage supporters aged 50 and up who seemed most devastated by the news.

Shelly Bailes and Ellen Pontac, who've been together 35 years and have four children and "a lotta" grandkids, noted the ridiculousness of the ruling: "We're still married in California, whatever that means in a state that doesn't recognize it."

Pali Cooper was furious: "How can I be happy that I can be married and you can't?" She and her partner of 30 years, Jeanne Rizzo, were sad to break the news to their son; yesterday was his 30th birthday. An elderly woman in a wheelchair gripped a sign reading simply: "I'm old. I'm Jewish. I'm gay." Her demeanor seemed to wonder if she hadn't just missed her last shot at full equality.

The youth, however, were galvanized. By 11 a.m., a circle of nearly 200 activists, many of them first timers, blocked Van Ness Avenue and awaited their shackles with well-contained anger and determination, thumbing away at their cell phones to disseminate the news worldwide. As many police officers -- several who were gay and lesbian -- flanked them from all sides.

We watched on as one demonstrator shared his bottle of water with a perspiring officer; another, 19-year-old David McElhatton, negotiated his impending arrest with an officer who guaranteed his safety. (As a transgender kid, David would be booked separately according to SFPD policy.) Forty men and women of the cloth were arrested.

The message was clear: We're not gonna take it anymore. While few Prop. 8 supporters showed up to flaunt their win, San Francisco saw one of its most vigorous, well organized marriage equality demonstrations yet. Emboldened by loss and empowered by momentum to take the ballots by storm in 2010, equality advocates of all stripes and ages radiated with fresh fierceness.

"I'm ready to dedicate the rest of my life to this fight if necessary," McElhatton said, promising renewed civil disobedience and grassroots leadership. Sure enough, an estimated 1,000, led by One Struggle, One Fight, departed the evening's planned rally at Yerba Buena Gardens, where we wound down the night, for an unsanctioned march to the Castro. The grassroots engine ruled the streets well into the cold night, twittering all the way. Hopefully, they'll catch some sleep before taking on Fresno, at Meet in the Middle for Equality, this Saturday.

Real rest, though, is unlikely anytime soon.

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Chloe Harris