Although a recently revealed affair with a married woman has been a public setback for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s political career, on Monday he was able to redirect press attention to the widely lauded move he made three years ago this week on behalf of gay civil rights.
At a press conference held in his office, Newsom, along with three same-sex couples, went back in time to remember the firestorm of excitement and controversy that ensued in 2004, after Newsom authorized The City to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Feb. 12.
After an injunction to stop the marriages was granted on March 11, 2004, San Francisco’s city attorney filed a lawsuit against the state, challenging the constitutionality of laws prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying.
That case is now before the state’s Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the matter by the beginning of next year.
Although in March 2005 a California trial court ruled that to deny marriage to homosexual couples violated their constitutional right to equal protection, in October of last year, the state’s appellate court upheld a law approved by voters in 2000 that limits marriage to a union between a man and a woman.
Nationwide, 26 states have legal bans against gay marriage. On Monday, conservative groups in New Jersey launched a petition drive to amend that state’s constitution to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.
Massachusetts is the only U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage; it is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and South Africa.
Two attempts have been made to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, in 2004 and 2006, but both efforts failed to garner the legislative votes to move forward.
Newsom said it was President Bush’s words against gay marriage, in his January 20, 2004, State of the Union address, that inspired him to authorize same-sex marriages in San Francisco.
Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that when she received a call from Newsom’s office saying he wanted to enlist the group’s help in giving out marriage licenses, that it launched “a transformative and powerful series of events.”
The organization is now representing 11 couples who are plaintiffs in the California marriage case.
The first same-sex couple married in San Francisco on Feb. 12, 2004, was Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, an elderly lesbian couple who had been together for 50 years.
Newsom said they were specifically chosen for the honor.
“What we intended to do … was put a human face on this issue,” he said. “A narrative of a life of 50 years dedicated to constancy and love and devotion, which was the life of those two.”
Newsom said he has never regretted the controversial action, which some people say caused a backlash that resulted in gay marriage bans across the country. Newsom pointed out that in that same time frame, civil unions and domestic partnerships — which offer gay couples some of the rights provided within marriage — are gaining mainstream acceptance.
“I don’t think there’s ever a wrong time to do the right thing,” Newsom said.
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Couples go to court seeking nuptials
Paula Cooper and Jeanne Rizzo had already been together for 18 years when they walked into San Francisco’s City Hall three years ago, with friends and family in tow, for their March 11 appointment to get married.
“We live as a family, little league games, preparing for college, the death of loved ones,” Cooper said.
Nonetheless, Cooper said she was “overwhelmed” by the feelings inside of her.
But when the couple, with the teenage son they had raised together, got to the appropriate city clerk’s counter, they saw a sign announcing that the state’s Supreme Court had just put a stop to San Francisco’s gay marriage spree.
Cooper and Rizzo are now plaintiffs, along with 11 other couples, in a case facing the state’s Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the state laws that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. Three of the couples spoke at a press conference Monday about their relationships and their desires to be married.
John Lewis and his partner of 20 years, Stuart Gaffney, were one of the first couples to be married, and proudly held up their pink and blue city-issued marriage license.
Jewelle Gomez, 58, said she’s old enough to remember the civil rights movement for African-Americans and compared the struggle to the fight for gay marriages. Sitting next to her partner of 14 years, Diane Sabin, she was dismissive of domestic partnership laws that offer same-sex couples many of the same provisions as marriage.
“Just as it was then, separate is not equal,” Gomez said.