From where California and San Francisco stand now in regard to the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is easy to look back at 2004 with starry eyes, congratulate The City for a job well done and move on.
Now, a decade after then-Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered officials to begin marrying same-sex couples at City Hall, is a good time to look back at the conversation, and controversy, that this stirred, and to redouble the efforts to help bring marriage equality to the entire country.
Newsom’s move for San Francisco to begin marrying same-sex couples started as a statement. Then, as it progressed for several weeks before the California Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the ceremonies, it became a signal of hope and a lightning rod for criticism — even from Democrats. In all, 4,027 same-sex couples wed in San Francisco between Feb. 12 and March 11, 2004.
Those couples also had to go through the legal challenges that the marriages faced in the courts. While the majority of Californians stood by and watched the volleying of legal arguments, and rulings, from a more abstract point of view, these couples lived through it with each twist and turn validating and then demolishing their legal rights to be wed to each other.
Through it all, The City steadfastly stood by and defended its move in the face of many legal challenges and vicious verbal attacks in the media and elsewhere. Attorneys from The City trudged through the legal trenches, past an unjust ballot measure, through state and federal courts and on to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they helped in the battle to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage once and for all last year.
San Francisco was right in helping to start the nationwide conversation about same-sex marriage — even if it was tough at the time. The majority of Americans in 2004 did not approve of same-sex marriages. But attitudes have changed in the past decade — a long time for the couples wanting to marry, but a blink of the eye for a cultural shift. The bans against same-sex marriage are falling throughout the nation, mostly via court actions.
The federal government, through the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, is also moving toward recognizing same-sex couples in a fully equal way. But from where we stand now, just 17 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. According to Marriage Equality USA, 51 percent of Americans still live in states that restrict marriage to a man and a woman.
It is exciting to look back at the past decade and see how far marriage equality has come in California since that fateful day when Newsom made a bold move. Now it is time for the rest of the nation to experience the joy that San Francisco just celebrated.