SAN FRANCISCO — Lowell Selvin and Gib Winebar have spent the last 25 years as a couple. Every January, the two men celebrate the night they met. Still, until last month, they never found themselves yearning to be married.
"We thought, do we really need the piece of paper?" recalled Selvin, now the 44-year-old chairman and chief executive of PlanetOut Partners. "Aren't we already way past married after 25 years?"
Imagine their surprise, then, when last month's same-sex wedding boom happened and they found themselves standing in line for two days, desperate to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for as long as they both shall live.
Until that moment, they say, they had viewed marriage mainly as a sort of package of legal protections, severing it from its deeper power as a communal rite of passage.
"It's difficult to describe," Selvin said. "Before, what I wanted was the thousand and forty-something rights" that the law confers upon married couples.
"But when all of a sudden it was a reality in our own backyard, something crystallized in my thinking," he added. "Marriage had been so far away and distant, it hadn't even been on our radar. Now anything less feels like second-class citizenship."
The same-sex wedding boom that, for 29 days, ignited this city and the nation may leave no one legally married by the time it works its way through the courts. But for at least one swath of society, it has permanently changed expectations.
Goals that once seemed sufficient -- health benefits for domestic partners, say, or spousal rights in child-custody matters -- now seem like tepid half-measures to many gay people. Meanwhile, from its tax deductions to its merest terms -- "my wife," "my husband" -- marriage has become the new line between the haves and have-nots.
It's an evolution that social conservatives had warned of almost from the first moments the licenses were issued, giving, in the view of state Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), for example, "false hope" to gay men and lesbians.
But it's also a change that, on a national scale, may not bode well for the long-term acceptance of compromise solutions, such as civil unions, which are legal in Vermont and have been proposed as an alternative to the marriages that are expected to begin as soon as May 17 in Massachusetts.
"Before all this, I probably would have entered into a civil union -- in fact, I did enter into a domestic partnership, because it was available and better than nothing," said James Krause, 53, a retiree who lives near New Paltz, N.Y. Krause and his partner of 15 years, Brendan Daly, 54, married during that town's brief flurry of same-sex weddings.
"But 'available'? 'Better than nothing'? How can you ask someone to settle for that?" Krause asked. "That's like telling Rosa Parks, 'Well, OK, you can move to the middle of the bus.' "
Homosexual marriage has been debated for more than a decade around the nation, but until very recently, the question had been hypothetical.
In Vermont, a 1999 court decision forcing the state to extend the constitutional benefits and protections of civil marriage to same-sex couples resulted in parallel "civil unions." Since then, same-sex couples have happily flocked there to formalize their partnerships.
But civil union rights stop at the Vermont state line, and when the highest court in Massachusetts ruled last year that its constitution outlawed separate-but-equal forms of marriage, the issue reached a critical mass.
On Feb. 12 -- while Massachusetts legislators struggled to satisfy not only their split electorate and their constitution, but also a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the law couldn't single out homosexuals for disapproval -- the new mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, announced that California's Constitution, too, forbade separate-but-equal status.
As Newsom abruptly began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, a handful of other municipalities -- New Paltz; Asbury Park, N.J.; Portland, Ore. -- followed. The thousands of ensuing ceremonies have reframed the debate.
"The mayor of San Francisco giving the licenses really upped the ante," said San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, adding that the symbolism attached to marriage was turning out to be far more profound than anticipated for many gay people. In the past, he and others noted, even same-sex couples often tended to prefer the less-loaded and more egalitarian notion of civil unions to heterosexual society's imperfect institution.
Now that's changing.
"I'm originally from Massachusetts, and on May 17 we're going to go up there and get married, and then we're going to bring that marriage certificate home with us and go to court if our state doesn't recognize us," vowed Elizabeth "Bitsy" Recupero, the town physician in the mile-long hamlet of Lambertville, N.J.
Recupero, 39, and Judith Levinson, a 53-year-old art teacher, have a civil union but now view it as insufficient.