It was two days before Valentine’s Day in 2004 that then-Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to press on the culture-war scales a bit and allow gay and lesbian couples to marry at San Francisco City Hall, marriage certificates and all.
They called it the “Winter of Love,” and it was a moment in San Francisco’s history, now two decades old, that bore a number of a parallels to the present moment. It was a time of rebuilding after the dot-com bust, when San Francisco was being viewed as washed up and hungover from an ill-advised escapade with tech. It was also an election year, with the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, using the culture wars and same-sex marriage in particular as a wedge issue. And while Newsom hadn’t discussed any presidential ambitions at that point, they were certainly back-of-mind.
“Sometimes a city just has to step up,” wrote Mark Morford in Mother Jones at the time. “Sometimes your hometown just has to drag itself off the floor, shake off the dust and rust of its former glories, and stomp its foot and plant its flag and shout its presence as the nation’s most oddball, spiritually variegated, intellectually fiery, funked-out, messy, semi-radical bubble of cultural anarchy. With really great coffee shops.”
Critics thought Newsom, who had just taken office a month earlier, was being foolish and perhaps self-promoting in taking the step of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He was testing something that was not legally sound and stoking the culture-war fires at a time when Democrats were hoping to unseat a not-especially popular incumbent in the White House. And while it created heart-warming images of couples lined up on Valentine’s Day and beyond, to seal themselves to each other with a locally quasi-legal ceremony and document, was this all just a big, distracting stunt?
It turned out to be just the shot in the arm that liberals and liberal jurists needed to get the marriage movement actually moving. The legal battles that ensued from those first marriage licenses, with the help of the ACLU, led to the California Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in May 2008 that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to be married.
Yes, it led directly to Prop 8 four years later — a stinging loss for the LGBTQ community on the same election night that put the first Black person in the White House. But outrage over Prop 8, and subsequent outrage over challenges to marriages that were sanctioned by other states — including in Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York, which had all legalized same-sex marriage by 2011 — helped galvanize a tidal shift in public opinion. Civil unions were no longer the separate but equal solution that we had to accept. Marriage, as many Americans began to understand, was something the government shouldn’t be denying two people who love each other, and everyone should have a right to the benefits and respect that marriage confers.
Back in February 2004, the decade-long legal fight over same-sex marriage had only barely just begun. Republicans were banking on it being an issue they could campaign against — making frequent reference to the slippery slope from gay marriage to bestiality, and bigamy. And in his State of the Union address that January, George W. Bush was already foreshadowing his reelection campaign, vowing to get a constitutional amendment passed codifying marriage as being a strictly heterosexual right.
Bush was reacting to the first major legal decision permitting same-sex marriages, which had come down in Massachusetts a few months earlier — though marriages were not set to begin there until the spring. Newsom, who’d been invited to attend the State of the Union as a friend of Nancy Pelosi, got an idea for one of his first acts as mayor, which would of course steal some thunder from Massachusetts.
“[I thought to myself] He is president of the United States, and I am just a guy who does stop signs and tries to revitalize parks,” Newsom told the New York Times in 2004. “I know my role. But I also know that I’ve got an obligation that I took seriously to defend the Constitution. There is simply no provision that allows me to discriminate.”
Newsom was also uniquely positioned among big-city mayors: San Francisco being a city and a county, and marriage licenses being issued by counties in California, he had the ability to open the county clerk’s doors — and the progressive SF Board of Supervisors had no desire to stop him.
Video of the lines outside SF City Hall, which were broadcast on television screens worldwide and bounced around the still nascent internet, were moving to say the least. There was not much in the way of protest, and no one was really sure where this would lead, but the pictures of beaming, hopeful faces were a new, contemporary image to add to the national civil rights movement.
The images made heroes, locally and nationally, of elder lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who at that point had been married in all but the legal sense for 51 years. And other longtime San Francisco couples, like Nicholas Parham and James Martin, who moved here from North Carolina in the early 1980s to live more freely, got to add the imprimatur of a San Francisco City Hall license to their 23-year-old relationship.
“I will always cherish that sort of collective elation we felt that day, even though everybody there probably knew it may not last,” Parham tells the Times this week. “We thought: Let’s just have fun. Let’s show the world what we want.”
“We have been wildly, dizzily emboldened by the notion that, no matter what the final outcome of our explosive gay marriage initiative, no matter what comes of BushCo’s sneering promise to alter the U.S. Constitution to codify homophobia and protect the sanctity of, well, hordes of terrified antigay right-wing moralists who genuinely believe gay marriage will lead straight to bestiality and wanton incest, these past few weeks will go down as one of those defining moments, a hot, seminal point in American history,” wrote Morford, with the breathless optimism that many of us felt at the time.
It was also an indelibly hopeful image for young LGBTQ people who were only coming into their own political awareness in 2004. Writing in the Chronicle today, Tony Bravo writes of coming of age in the 1990s, when Ellen DeGeneres famously came out on her eponymous sitcom (only to get canceled), and when Will & Grace had begun to humanize (if not sexualize) white gay men to a broad national audience.
“But my adolescence was also shaped by events like the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming; the 1999 Oscar-winning film Boys Don’t Cry, about the murder of transgender man Brandon Teena in Nebraska; and much closer to home, the 2002 murder of trans woman Gwen Araujo just across the Bay in Newark,” Bravo writes.
Legal advocates for same-sex marriage did not foresee that the movement would need just a little more than a decade before the Supreme Court would declare marriage a basic right for all in 2015. And without Newsom’s and San Francisco’s boldness 11 years earlier, it’s not clear that the issue would have come to a head so quickly. You needed a critical mass of couples who now had certain rights in California that they wouldn’t have if they moved to two dozen other states, and all that started here.
The fight, of course, isn’t necessarily over, and there are plenty of conservative jurists — most notably Justice Clarence Thomas — who would like to see the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling overturned on the same grounds that Roe v. Wade was in 2022.
There is a ballot measure headed to the November ballot here in California that will, once and for all, codify marriage as a civil right. Yes, here in 2024, we are still needing to protect same-sex marriage, and the ballot measure will formally repeal Proposition 8, 16 years on, and add an amendment to the state constitution saying that the “right to marry is a fundamental right.”
And, just last month, Kim Davis, the former Kentucky county clerk who made a national villain of herself (and a hero to the antigay right) when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on personal religious grounds in 2015, was ordered by a federal court to pay $260,104 in legal fees and expenses for one of couples whom she denied. Davis is expected to continue appealing the ruling, but this comes on top of $100,000 in damages that a federal jury awarded to the couple last fall, which Davis is also on the hook for.
Top image: Newlyweds Amber Weiss (L) and Sharon Papo depart City Hall with their family, after getting married in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Corbis via Getty Images)