In February 2004, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in City Hall in defiance of state law. Those marriages sparked a national debate, court battles, a state proposition and most recently a Supreme Court decision in their favor. Ten years later, Newsom spoke with The San Francisco Examiner reflecting on his part in the fight for same-sex marriage and what still needs to be done.
Q: What was the impetus to start marrying same-sex couples at City Hall?
GN: Ten years ago, soon after being elected mayor, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi gave me her husband's ticket to the State of the Union. I also was given an advance copy of the speech. As President George W. Bush started into his speech, much of it about abstinence, drug use and steroids, I flipped ahead in my advance copy and came to the end where Bush voiced support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. After the speech, I walked out to pick up my cellphone and a woman started talking about “homosexuals” and how proud she was of Bush's support for banning same-sex marriage. And I thought, 'Thank God they don't know that I'm the mayor of San Francisco.” I was disgusted.
Q: What did you do next?
GN: I walked into the halls of Congress and called my chief of staff, Steve Kawa — the first openly gay chief of staff — and I said, “We gotta do something about this constitutional amendment.” Literally, that was the spark, the State of the Union.
Q: Looking back, would you do things differently if you knew the consequences of that first marriage on Feb. 12, 2004?
GN: I have no regrets, zero. But I had to sit there as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others told me my actions would impact the presidential election. That weighed heavily on me — criticism from my own party. But I had other worries: Losing my job and possible arrest. But I still feel very strongly that we did the right thing. Everyone has a better idea now, so have at me.
Q: What did you expect to happen and what actually happened?
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GN: I thought we would marry one couple — Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon — and they would be the faces to attach it to a lawsuit. We thought they'd be the only couple married. But the courts said there was no irreparable harm, so there was no temporary restraining order. None of us imagined that a month would pass (more than 4,000 couples were married before the California Supreme Court stepped in). It was pretty heady stuff at the time. People were flying in from other states. There was a line around the block outside of City Hall. No one called in sick at City Hall. It was mesmerizing. None of us planned that. None of us foresaw that. And it was magical. After Phyllis and Del were married I gave them a copy of the Constitution. I don't know why. I wrote in it: “Thank you for making these words real.”
Q: What kind of support did you have at the time and when did things start to shift, nationally?
GN: I was waiting, asking myself, “Where the hell is my party?” In 2004 and 2005, the conversation was not easy even with my allies. My chief of staff, Steve Kawa, was opposed and I was an easy target for people's discontent around Sen. John Kerry's failed bid for president. Even some in the national gay community were uneasy. I was more disgusted by my own party's lack of support than from Republican criticism. The only exception was Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley, who said he'd do the same thing if he were the president of Cook County. Even by 2006, and it was crickets out there. Literally, people were talking about dogs marrying cats in some circles. Then in 2012, we hit a tipping point. The winds started to shift and state after state started flipping on same-sex marriage.
Q: Was it all roses in San Francisco?
GN: Even in San Francisco, it was uneasy. The mythology is that San Francisco is a bunch of liberals, but look at the last few mayors: no progressives. I was elected because of the west side Catholic vote. When we started issuing marriage licenses, I had folks from the more conservative part of town asking themselves why they'd backed me as mayor. Even my father questioned what we did.
Q: Is the fight for marriage equality over?
GN: There's broader momentum than there had been. Politicians aren't leading this fight anymore. But even as popular culture thaws, there is still a real fight. The courts and case law are moving in the right direction but remember, the Supreme Court only allowed same-sex marriage in some states. Some people may have moved on, but the fight continues.