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Moment of truth arrives in decades-long battle for equality

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When same-sex couples begin exchanging vows in ceremonies across the state this week, it will be a major milestone for the gay-rights movement — but there is still more to be done, advocates said.

Nearly 40 years after gay men and women rioted in New York City to protest a police crackdown on gay bars — dubbed the Stonewall Rebellion and widely recognized as the beginning of the gay-rights movement — the California Supreme Court ruled May 15 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

When Mayor Gavin Newsom officiates The City’s first legal same-sex marriage today — between Del Martin, 87, and Phyllis Lyon, 83 — it will be the culmination of several efforts in San Francisco.

In 1989, a San Francisco ordinance unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors and signed into law by Mayor Art Agnos was one of the first “domestic partnership” laws passed by a major city. It extended hospital visitation rights to registered couples and allowed bereavement leave for city workers.

Mayor Willie Brown signed another ordinance into law in 1996, and domestic partners working for The City have been able to share benefits ever since. Brown also presided over civil ceremonies at the time.

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Now, on Tuesday, The City will open its doors to hundreds of other same-sex couples who want something more than a domestic partnership — a marriage.

Kimberly Richman, a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco who has researched the same-sex marriage issue extensively, says the California Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage is one of the top five moments in gay-rights history.

Richman, who said her studies take her toward the legal side of matters, ranked it with the Stonewall Rebellion; Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized sodomy; Romer v. Evans, which saw justices first apply equal protection to sexual orientation; and the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage.

The ruling in California was “extremelysignificant,” she said. “[Marriage] is the hardest hurdle in terms of gaining acceptance in public opinion.”

There also are “big differences” between same-sex marriages and opposite-sex marriages, said David Masci, a senior research fellow with the Pew Forum, a nonpartisan research organization. Most notably, he said, an opposite-sex marriage is recognized by all of the states and by the federal government.

The California decision could become a bigger milestone if it has a “ripple effect” across the country, but that also will depend on what California voters decide this November, when they vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage, he said.

“This is potentially a very big milestone,” Masci said. “The only reason I put ‘potentially’ is because it may be a brief one.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom — who thrust the issue of gay marriage into the national spotlight in 2004 when he authorized San Francisco’s county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — called the state’s decision to greenlight same-sex marriages “not the end.”

“It’s just the beginning,” he said. “We’ve got 48 other states.”

dsmith@sfexaminer.com

Milestones from the gay-rights movement

The campaign that resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriages in California can be traced back to the late 1960s.

» 1969: In June, plainclothes police officers raid the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village; they meet violent resistance from gay patrons of the bar and people on the street. Event comes to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion.

» 1977: Responding to claims that California’s “gender-neutral” marriage statute left room for gays and lesbians to wed, the state Legislature amends the Family Code to define marriage as “a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman.”

» 1977: Harvey Milk becomes the first openly gay man elected to a major political office when he is elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

» 1982: Wisconsin becomes first state to enact statewide gay-rights legislation.

» 1995: Vermont approves the creation of same-sex unions.

» 1996: The Romer v. Evans case sees the U.S. Supreme Court apply equal protection to sexual orientation.

» 1999: The state Legislature establishes domestic-partnerrules giving registered same-sex couples limited rights previously only available to married spouses.

» 2000: Proposition 22 further amends the Family Code to state that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” after passing with support from 61 percent of voters.

» 2000: Legislature grants more benefits to registered domestic partners, including the right to make medical decisions for a partner, the right to use the stepparent adoption process to adopt a partner’s children and the right to sue for a partner’s wrongful death.

» 2002: Domestic partners given additional rights under state law, including the right to draft wills for each other.

» 2003: The court case Lawrence v. Texas decriminalizes sodomy.

» 2003: Gov. Gray Davis signs legislation granting registered domestic partners nearly all remaining rights and responsibilities available to married spouses under California law.

» Feb. 12, 2004: Mayor Gavin Newsom directs San Francisco officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

» Feb. 24, 2004: President Bush pledges support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

» March 8. 2004: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels signs an executive order to recognize same-sex marriages among municipal workers and extend all benefits already granted to heterosexual spouses.

» March 11, 2004: After more than 4,000 wedding licenses issued, the California Supreme Court halts San Francisco’s same-sex weddings.

» May 17, 2004: First legal same-sex marriage in U.S. performed in Massachusetts.

» July 14, 2004: U.S. Senate votes to block a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

» Aug. 12, 2004: The state Supreme Court voids gay marriages sanctioned in San Francisco, ruling that Newsom lacked the authority to go against state law.

» Sept. 30, 2004: U.S. House of Representatives votes against a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

» Nov. 3, 2004: State constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage pass in 11 states, including Oregon, Mississippi, Montana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah.

» Jan. 1, 2005: The 2003 Domestic Partners Rights and Responsibilities Act, a law granting gay couples who register as domestic partners nearly all of the benefits and obligations afforded married spouses in California, takes effect.

» March 14, 2005: San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer rules that California’s law limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman is unconstitutional.

» April 4, 2005: A state appeals court rules that California’s domestic partner law doesn’t conflict with a voter-approved initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

» April 7, 2005: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg orders city agencies to provide rights and services to gay couples legally married from other states and countries.

» June 29, 2005: The California Supreme Court lets stand a new state law granting registered domestic partners many of the same rights and protections of heterosexual marriage.

» Aug. 10, 2005: The California Supreme Court says it will not immediately decide whether a state ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, leaving the case to a state appeals court.

» Sept. 29, 2005: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoes a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, leaving the issue up to voters or judges.

» May 5, 2006: A federal appeals court sidesteps whether it’s unconstitutional under federal and state law to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry, leaving the issue to state courts to decide.

» June 2006: Alabama passes a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman.

» Oct. 5, 2006: </strong>A state appeals court rules that California’s ban on gay marriage doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians, overturning Judge Kramer’s ruling.

» November 2006: South Dakota, South Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Colorado and Idaho pass constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

» Dec. 20, 2006: The state Supreme Court agrees to decide the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban.

» April 21, 2007: The state of Washington legalizes domestic partnerships.

» May 9, 2007: Oregon legalizes domestic partnerships.

» Oct. 12, 2007: Schwarzenegger vetoes a second bill to legalize same-sex marriage, saying voters and the state Supreme Court should decide the issue.

» Jan. 1, 2008: Civil unions in New Hampshire take effect.

» Feb. 1, 2008: Domestic partnerships in Oregon take effect.

» March 3, 2008: State Supreme Court hears arguments in gay marriage case.

» May 15, 2008: California Supreme Court overturns voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, clearing the way for California to become the second state to allow gays and lesbians to marry.

» June 16, 2008: Same-sex marriage in California becomes legal at 5:01 p.m.

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