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In San Francisco, a weekend of gay weddings at City Hall

Afraid the same-sex marriage window will shut again, gay couples line up at City Hall, which on Saturday was staffed entirely by volunteer workers.

June 29, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga, Chris Megerian and Joseph Serna
  • Army Sgt. Michael Potoczniak, left, and his partner, Todd Saunders, exchange rings during their marriage ceremony at San Francisco City Hall on Saturday.
Army Sgt. Michael Potoczniak, left, and his partner, Todd Saunders, exchange… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — They piled into their white Prius in Los Alamitos at midnight and arrived at City Hall here not long after sunrise Saturday with one simple goal in mind: A marriage license. Right now.

Sandy Palmer and Mary Dang knew they couldn't get the crucial piece of paper over the weekend in Orange County, where they have lived together for 10 years. And they worried that the right to marry granted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday afternoon could be taken away again Monday morning.

Such a matrimonial bait and switch had happened to gay and lesbian couples before — not once, but twice. Hence the sleepless night, the moonlit sprint up Interstate 5, the 90-minute wait on the steps of City Hall as early morning traffic rushed by and the line for licenses swelled.

PHOTOS: Gay marriage

"We had a wedding in 2010," said Palmer, 33, a pirate-themed affair with swords and hats, friends and family. "It was amazing, but the legal piece was missing. I wanted to make this a part of my personal history, to grab the moment, be part of something special — not just for me, but for the country."

That combination of joy and tension radiated throughout the beaux-arts building all day Saturday, as couples from throughout the state converged on what was believed to be the only government office in California issuing marriage licenses. By the time the ornate doors swung open at 9:10 a.m., a line of more than 100 people snaked along the building's north side.

And on its south side? That's where a miniature tent city for the San Francisco Pride Celebration & Parade opened for business Saturday afternoon. The two-day fete usually draws a million people; organizers expect the crowd to swell by 20% because of last week's court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage in California and striking provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

For some couples, Saturday in San Francisco offered a chance to make up for lost opportunities, for not having wed during the brief windows in 2004, when more than 4,000 same-sex marriages were performed in San Francisco, and in 2008, when such unions were legal statewide before Proposition 8 was passed.

For others, such as Greg Van Dyke and Andrew Zack, lining up for a marriage license "was completely serendipitous." Saturday was Van Dyke's 43rd birthday, and the Los Angeles couple had bought plane tickets weeks earlier so they could celebrate his big day here.

The dermatologist and the Hollywood agent have been together for a year. They have a house in Mid-City. They have a wedding planned for Santa Barbara on Thanksgiving weekend. Zack's cousin, a rabbi, is flying in from London to do the honors. A surrogate is pregnant with their son, due in January.

But "we got in late last night," Van Dyke said, "had dinner, got up this morning, walked over to City Hall to see it."

And ended up in line for a marriage license.

In the first hour of business Saturday morning alone, San Francisco officials issued about 100 marriage licenses. All told, 246 were granted and 188 couples were married on the first full day of legal, post-Proposition 8 marriage.

The process was summed up nicely by a small sign outside the county clerk's office: "License = $99. Ceremony = $75. Both = $174. Equality = Priceless."

Everyone working at City Hall — which will be open again Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — was a volunteer, from the cashiers taking the license payments to the greeters keeping the process running smoothly and the marriage commissioners in their long black robes intoning, "By virtue of the authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life."

The grand rotunda with its sweeping marble staircase rang with cheers, "I do's" and the sounds of decisions made on the fly: Are the witnesses here? Shall we do the ceremony by the steps? Do you have a ring? Where did my family go?

Wedding photographers Danielle Fernandez, 33, and Janeen Singer, 32, had planned to celebrate Pride weekend together in Dolores Park, home of Saturday's Dyke March, with a bottle of champagne.

Instead, they headed to City Hall in matching black shirts emblazoned with "lesbian and wedding photographer." Rates started at a discounted $40. Until Friday, Fernandez said, their job has been "pretty hetero."

But not anymore. "There's something about the energy around today," Fernandez said. "It's validation…. People are glowing. It makes for good photographs."

When Tom Rothgiesser and George Lucas (no, not that one) arrived at the Civic Center to cap off half a century of togetherness, they did not need a marriage commissioner to officiate.

The 79-year-olds brought their own Superior Court judge, a retired jurist with a pedigree. Judge James Warren is a longtime friend and the grandson of Earl Warren, the legendary U.S. Supreme Court justice who advanced civil rights nationwide.

Warren said his grandfather would have been thrilled.

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