From Gay Marriage's Ground Zero

  • Share
  • Read Later
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AFP / Getty

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom speaks before Del Martin, left, and Phyllis Lyon are married in a private ceremony at City Hall. The couple is the first to be married in the city as same-sex marriages become legal in California.

Same-sex couples began marrying late Monday night in courthouse ceremonies across California, putting triumphantly happy human faces on a debate that is nevertheless far from over. Crowds turned out to welcome — and, for some, to protest — weddings in Beverly Hills, Oakland and the wine country north of San Francisco.

In San Francisco, hundreds gathered to see long-time gay rights icons Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin marry after more than half a century as a couple. "When we first got together, we were not really thinking about getting married, we were thinking about getting together," Lyon said to laughter, standing behind Martin's wheelchair. "I think it's a wonderful day. We are very happy." "Ditto," said Martin.

But even as the state braces for thousands more weddings in coming weeks, some of the most ardent supporters of same-sex marriage are casting anxious glances at the calendar and wondering how long the wedding bells will chime in California. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is one of them.

Just before officiating at the Lyon and Martin nuptials Monday evening, Newsom took a break from what he described as the increasingly electric atmosphere around city hall to worry about what the fall might bring. "There is just a great sense of pride here this afternoon," Newsom told TIME. "But there is a great deal of trepidation, concern and worry too."

The weddings will stop abruptly this fall if California voters approve a November ballot initiative banning gay marriage. "There are a lot of mixed emotions about this," Newsom said. "It's exhilarating on the one hand. But it's by no means certain that California won't take back what it has given."

He should know. He had already married Lyon and Martin once before, in 2004. "Disgusted and outraged" at President George W. Bush's State of the Union address that year, the mayor decided to challenge California's ban on gay marriage by giving a marriage license to the couple. More than 4,000 other couples followed suit, and while their weddings were later voided, the court challenge led to last month's Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage.

Newsom told TIME he never expected to be in the middle of a fight for gay marriage: "Gay marriage was not on my radar. No one had asked me what I thought about it, and I had never really given it any thought one way or another." But the Bush State of the Union address changed all that. "I just felt deeply disconnected to my country, about which I care about very much," he said. "So I decided I'd make my stand by marrying one couple, and we decided [in 2004] we'd issue a marriage license for Phyllis and Del. Little did we know, we'd have 4,036 couples marry before it was over."

By the time Newsom presided over Lyon and Martin's new marriage on Monday, the battle lines for the fight in the fall had begun to form. Gay marriage opponents held signs and yelled slogans outside courthouses there and in other locations where weddings were about to take place. In addition, California's top Roman Catholic prelate issued a statement reiterating the church's opposition to gay marriage. "The church cannot approve of redefining marriage, which has a unique place in God's creation, joining a man and a woman in a committed relationship in order to nurture and support the new life for which marriage is intended," said the statement, signed by Cardinal Roger Mahony, the head of the archdiocese of Los Angeles. "The meaning of marriage is deeply rooted in history and culture, and has been shaped considerably by Christian tradition. Its meaning is given, not constructed. When marriage is redefined so as to make other relationships equivalent to it, the institution of marriage is devalued and further weakened."

But the church's warnings are likely to do little to stem the tide of weddings between now and November. Newsom said there are already 1,670 couples registered for marriage licenses in San Francisco — and another 636 have booked space for weddings at city hall.

And it will be those weddings, Newsom told TIME, that will be gay-marriage supporters' best weapon in defeating the amendment. "There are some who just can't get over the idea, the image even, of two men kissing," he said. "But for most Californians, I think, if they just pause and think about what gay marriage means to the people they know, they won't want to take it away. The people getting married are your teachers, your neighbors, your cousins. They are the bus drivers, waiters and waitresses and your doctors. They are going to say, well, I never knew Doctor Bob was with his partner for 30 years. But you know, he is a good man, a good doctor. And this has made him just so happy."

Newsom said that it has been a struggle within his own family to accept his support of gay marriage. "I was educated by the Notre Dame nuns and went to a Jesuit college. It has been a challenge in my own family. Some just don't get it. My father took awhile. He was a judge on the California Court of Appeals and he did not approve of what I was doing [in 2004.] But I told him, just come into city hall. Don't tell anyone who you are, no one will recognize you. Just come by yourself and see for yourself what these marriages mean. He did that, and when he came and talked to me, he had a hard time keeping himself together. This isn't just about the couples themselves, and it's so much bigger than the gay agenda. It's about the families and the children of the couples who get married. He came away realizing that his marriage was not going to be affected."

Come what may in November, Newsom says, he'll rest easy knowing he helped make weddings like the one he performed Monday as legal as the one he'll take part in next month, when he marries his girlfriend. "I'm extraordinarily proud of what we've accomplished," he said. "I'll sleep well because of this."