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Hundreds married on historic day

Gay couples obtaining licenses reflect on the long-awaited moment. Protests are low-key, but a battle is brewing.

June 18, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg, Nancy Vogel and Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writers

After all the angst and hoopla, the first full day of same-sex marriage in California on Tuesday turned out to be almost placid, if you discounted the whoops of celebration or the courthouse crushes of brides and brides, and grooms and grooms.

The weight of history, the sense that this was a signal moment in the decades-long battle for gay rights, was lightened by joy and relief as couples -- some of whom had waited decades to marry -- took their vows amid smiling friends, proud relatives and beaming government officials.

Aside from a few low-key demonstrations, opponents of same-sex marriage largely stayed away from the celebratory scenes being played out at county buildings statewide, concluding that acrimony would probably detract from their November ballot measure to change the state Constitution to outlaw the practice.

Behind the scenes, though, the seeds of what could be an epic political battle were being sown.

For hundreds of gay and lesbian couples, Tuesday was a day that intertwined the personal and the political.

Chelsea Thompson, 24 of Anaheim and Bonni Millon, 24, of Long Beach arrived at the Los Angeles County clerk's office in Norwalk at 10 p.m. Monday to save their place in line.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Focus on the Family: An article about the first full day of same-sex marriage in California in Wednesday's Section A referred to the head of Focus on the Family as the Rev. James C. Dobson. Dobson is not a clergyman. He has a PhD from the University of Southern California.

"It's a monumental day," Millon said shortly before the clerk's office opened Tuesday morning. "We're changing history and we wanted to be a part of that and support the other people."

"I think it's a glorious California morning to make history," said "Star Trek" actor George Takei, who got a license in West Hollywood to marry his longtime partner, Brad Altman. Paraphrasing a line from the television show, he added: "Congratulations to all of us. May equality live long and prosper."

By the end of the day, well over 2,300 marriage licenses had been issued statewide; the vast majority appeared to be to same-sex couples. The statewide average for a weekday in June is 460, according to a Times survey of all 58 counties.

Los Angeles County issued 648 licenses and performed 279 wedding ceremonies, Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan said. That is well above the daily average of 133 licenses in June.

In Orange County, 121 couples received licenses, up from an average of 30. San Diego County issued 230 licenses, surpassing its old record of 176 set on Valentine's Day 2005.

Opponents of gay marriage, largely anchored by Christian fundamentalists, have not given up their fight to overturn last month's California Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex unions.

"We are silent today, but we're just biding our time," said activist Rosalyn Strode who heads Bakersfield Citizens Opposed to Obscenity and Lewdness. "We'll have our say in November."

The initiative campaign proposes to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. It received $250,000 this week from an evangelical group, Focus on the Family, and declared that the debate about same-sex marriage "is not over." Focus on the Family, led by the Rev. James C. Dobson, posted a statement on its website declaring that California's "judicially imposed social experiment has hastened the demise of religious freedom across the U.S."

Spurred by that challenge, proponents of gay marriage launched their own fundraising campaign.

Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, which favors gay marriage, estimated that his side may need to raise more than $20 million for the campaign -- an amount equal to what it expects the pro-initiative forces to raise.

In an interview, Kors said that his organization and several others have set up registries on their websites. Similar to the department store programs that allow couples to register for gifts, the site allows newlyweds to instead direct contributions to various political action committees that will support same-sex marriage.

Some couples came up with the same idea.

In Norwalk early Tuesday, Adam Pearson, 32, and Matt Armendariz, 38, of Long Beach wiped away tears of joy at being married and said they were not going to have a reception. Instead, they said, they might have a benefit to raise money for the political campaign.

One striking aspect of the couples who turned out Tuesday was the sheer longevity of many partnerships. People who had been living together as couples for 20, 30 or 40 years without being able to marry could hardly believe that their relationships were finally being legally sanctioned -- often by county officials who shed any bureaucratic aloofness and appeared to share in the joy of the occasion.

Warren Wood, 69, and Doug Hairgrove, 68, said they have been together for 47 years, since they both attended the University of Redlands. Now retired after careers as middle-school teachers, they were in line for a marriage license at the Riverside County clerk's office in Indio. "This is fabulous," Hairgrove said. "This is a major, major step and we are thrilled to be a part of it."

Nearly everyone involved in the day's rituals expressed the sense that they were witnessing a milestone.

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