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SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: AN ORAL HISTORY

'There was a lot of doubt ... but I never regretted it'

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talks about the events leading up to the decision to perform gay marriages and how history will judge it.

May 26, 2009|Gavin Newsom

On Feb. 12, 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that his city would begin performing same-sex marriages. The move came in defiance of Proposition 22, passed by voters in 2000, which defined marriage as a "personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman." Newsom maintained that the state Constitution's equal protection clause preempted that law. On Aug. 13, 2004, the California Supreme Court ruled that Newsom had overstepped his authority and nullified about 4,000 marriages performed in San Francisco during the period.

The decision to start performing gay marriages in San Francisco was a direct outgrowth of my first trip to Washington, D.C., as mayor.

Weeks after I was sworn in, I was in Washington, and Nancy Pelosi asked me if I would like her husband's ticket to the State of the Union address. I went to the Capitol and watched the speech. The speech ended with President Bush railing about gay marriage. We were in two wars and grappling with things like climate change and income equality, and he's talking about gay marriage. It was wedge politics.

I was supposed to go to a post-speech event in Nancy Pelosi's office, but I decided to skip it and instead I walked out of the Capitol and called my staff, and said, "Guys, we have to do something about this."

I didn't know then what that would mean. But a couple of days later, I flew back, and we sat down with Kate Kendell at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and some folks from Lambda Legal and others.

Joyce Neustadt from my staff and Kate came in and said: "Here's what we should do. We should put a human face on this issue by marrying Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin."

They were a San Francisco couple who had been together 51 years at that time. Talk about a relationship of love and devotion and constancy: It was really what marriage should be about. Our intention was not to marry 4,030-plus couples from 48 states and eight countries, as happened. The intention was to have Phyllis and Del be the face of what's at stake in this debate.

We opened City Hall before 9 a.m. that first morning because we wanted to have performed marriages before the courts were open and then initiate a legal action against the state. We anticipated that the courts would tell us to stop, and we intended to stop when it did, but that order didn't come for nine weeks.

People say the country wasn't ready for gay marriage. And that's correct. But the country wasn't ready for gender equality either. They weren't ready, certainly, for equality among the races.

In 2008, when we got news that the Supreme Court had ruled that gays had the right to marry in California, people rushed to City Hall. That's the day I said something I regret. I said: "The door's wide open now. It's going to happen whether you like it or not." It lacked humility and embodied someone I never wanted to be.

But the point I was trying to make was historical. Whether we've liked it or not, civil rights in America have been determined, almost exclusively, by the courts. It is the courts that have consistently protected the rights of the minority from the whims of the majority. My comment was in that context. After all, 70% of Americans opposed interracial marriage after the Supreme Court declared it legal. If we had submitted interracial marriage to the will of the voters, they wouldn't have approved it.

So, no, people weren't ready, but if we'd waited for that, we'd still be waiting. People said 2004 was the wrong time. But would 2006 have been better, with midterm congressional elections? And then 2008 would have been the presidential year.

Dr. King summed it up best in his letters from Birmingham. "Wait almost always means never." I'm not by any means comparing this to those days and those battles. But on timing, someone will always say it's the wrong time, no matter what rights battle you're talking about.

There was a lot of doubt about what we did and how we did it, but I never regretted it. I think that in 10 years people are going to look back and say, "What was the big deal?" I think there may be a patchwork of states still holding out, and I think it will still be used as a wedge issue for political gain and for fundraising. But I think the consciousness of this country has already evolved dramatically.

In California, what bewilders me is that we've always been on the cutting edge. We're defined by our tolerance. I just hope we can reconnect to the best nature of our state when we go back to the voters and right this wrong. I don't believe California wants to be at the tail end of history on this. We'll be on the wrong side if we hold ourselves out.

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