Party “A” and Party “B”:
Junesixteenth – A New Page in History

by Susan Hart Hellman, Contributing Writer

June 12, “Loving Day,” celebrates that date in 1967 when the United States Supreme Court overturned laws banning interracial marriage. June 19, know as ‘Juneteenth,’ or Freedom Day, celebrates the abolishment of slavery in Texas on that day in 1865. One state has been especially instrumental in seeing these civil rights carried out, the “Sunshine State,” California. In 1948 California was the first state since Reconstruction to declare that the anti-miscegenation violated the Fourteenth Amendment. And California has been one of the few states to make ‘Juneteenth’ official, declared so on June 19, 2005 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to commemorate that date 140 ago.

On June 16, 2008, California again made history, when, at 5:00 p.m., it became only the second state to legalize marriage between same-sex couples, and the first to allow same-sex couples from other states to marry too. On June 16, rainbow flags waved through the air, back and forth on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall.

The History of the Law

The path to California’s legalization of same-sex marriages has been a challenge. In May 1999 the State Legislature approved domestic-partnerships, but in 2000, 61% of California voters passed Proposition 22, proclaiming marriage was between a man and woman.

But thousands of other voters, legislators, and officials refused this concept, and in 2004, Legislator Mark Leno began work on AB 19, his “gender-neutral” marriage bill, the first of such bills he would have to rewrite and resubmit over the next few years due to gubernatorial vetoes.

Meanwhile, on February, 12 2004 San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom approved marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and hundreds of couples married, most at San Francisco City Hall. Among them were early lesbian rights advocates Phyllis Lyon, 80, and Del Martin, 83, together for 51 years.

But on March 11, California’s Supreme Court halted those weddings, saying Newsom lacked legal authority. That same day, several discrimination lawsuits were filed, including the City and County of San Francisco v. State of California.

On August 12, the more than 3,000 marriages were declared null, but in March 2005, a ray of sunshine appeared again. County Superior Court and Judge Richard Kramer declared the marriage ban unconstitutional, and Proposition 22 too.

With that, Mark Leno introduced AB 849, but in spite of Senate and Assembly confirmation, it was terminated by Governor Schwarzenegger, as was another Senate/Assembly-approved version in September 2007.

Then on May 15, 2008 California’s Supreme Court declared barring same-sex marriages unconstitutional; eagerly waiting San Francisco supporters of same-sex marriage first learned of the decision from the Nation’s first openly gay morning radio show hosts. Energy 92.7’s Fernando and Greg made one simple announcement: “Same sex marriage is legal in California now.”

After 30 days, on June 16 at 5:00 p.m., gay and lesbian couples could legally marry in the Sunshine State, and Mayor Newsom presided at the one San Francisco wedding held that day. At 5:01 p.m. Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, now together 55 years, married again.

On June 17, dozens of same-sex couples followed in Lyon and Martin’s continuing front running footsteps and were married at San Francisco’s City Hall, with hundreds of others being married throughout the State. With these reforms in marriage laws came the immediate need for language changes too, and requests for the name of the ‘Bride’ and ‘Groom’ on marriage licenses became requests for ‘Party A’ and ‘Party B.” And rather than being pronounced ‘Man and Wife,’ same-sex couples became ‘Spouses for Life.’

Stuart and John

But many couples had already considered themselves life spouses, including Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis of San Francisco, married on ‘first day,’ June 17, previously together for 21 years. Stuart, a Project Director at the UC San Francisco Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, and John, an attorney, had met in 1987 and felt as though they’d known each other all their lives. In fact, Stuart told a friend, “I think I’ve met my future husband!”

Soon, they committed to each other, but committed to not marry, deciding to wait until their marriage would be legally recognized in their home state. Little did they know that day would not come until many years later, February 12, 2004. Then, by Mayor Newsom’s decree, they exchanged their vows at City Hall.

Stuart recalls, “When we heard the words ‘By virtue of the authority vested in me by the State of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life,’ we felt something transform within us.” For the first time they felt the government was treating them as fully equal human beings, recognizing them as a loving couple worthy of the full respect of the law.

Just weeks later, however, respect turned to disrespect when the same-sex marriages were made null.

But this year, another landmark decision was enacted. On May 15, 2008, the couple learned that the same-sex marriage ban had been overturned at 10:00 am. At 10:04 Stuart’s mother called with one question, “When’s the wedding?”

Stuart and John decided to marry the first day possible, and once again at City Hall. “We had waited for over 20 years – we didn’t want to wait a day longer!” Stuart exclaims.

They say exchanging their vows publically, before their community, deepened their commitment and care for each other and strengthened their connection to family and friends.

“As we drove off from the reception,” Stuart says, “we said to ourselves – our wedding was just right.”

Sharon and Amber

Sharon Papo and Amber Weiss, together five years, also considered their June 17 nuptials as the fulfillment of the dream to which they had clung for so long. Sharon, Program Director at a Youth Center and Health Clinic and Amber, a Physician’s Assistant, became engaged in 2004 when Amber presented Sharon with a scrapbook of mementos, with a note on the last page saying “Will you marry me?”

In 2005, in white gowns, they married in a Jewish ceremony with 100 guests. But, with no State recognition, they began working with Marriage Equality USA to ensure that the day they could legally marry would arrive.

Recalling that day, May 15, 2008, Amber says, “We were waiting on pins and needles. We didn’t have TV and tried to get on the internet to get the results.” But Sharon’s mother called with the news, and they rushed to San Francisco from their Berkeley home to celebrate.

For this wedding, although they wore white gowns once again, they choose something very different from their celebration in 2005: a Civil Ceremony at San Francisco’s City Hall with six guests. Amber says, “This was about being proud citizens of California and the Nation.”

Peter and Jeffrey

Peter West and Jeffrey Holt of San Francisco decided not to marry on the ‘first day.’ They’d initially considered a June 17 wedding, but wanted a quieter time, especially without the media, so waited until July. Peter, who works in furniture design sales and operations, and Jeff, General Manager in design, met in 1993 on a bus going to work. For months, they’d exchanged shy glances then, one day they had to ride together in the only vacant seats. “We started talking,” Peter explains, and Ted asked me if I was seeing anyone. When I said “no” he answered, “You should be seeing me.”

Soon they became engaged, preparing to marry in February 2004. “We were all set,” Peter says, “and then they stopped the ceremonies the day before.”

But upon the May 15 decision, the subject of marriage arose again. Setting fear of another disappointment aside, they set their wedding for July 11 in the rotunda in San Francisco City Hall.

Nancy and Sharon

San Jose couple Nancy Tannahill and Sharon Petty decided to marry in their home county of Santa Clara, south of San Francisco, and were the first same-sex couple in that county to obtain their license. “Everyone cheered when we walked out holding up our license,” Sharon says.

Nancy, an Operations Manager, and Sharon, a home restoration expert, met 25 years ago and became engaged two years later. Sharon recalls, “Twenty-three years ago, I gave Nancy a ring. It was so long ago I can’t remember if I got down on my knee, but being the romantic that I am, I probably did.”

They were married on June 28, 2008 at a Brentwood ranch, an event they dubbed “casual and fun, a barbeque with a ceremony in the middle of it,” so they all could wear shorts in the extreme summer heat.

Sharon says many friends teased them, saying “It’s about time!” But guests recognized the deeper meaning of the marriage too, one that had had to wait 23 years.

Dennis and Mark

One guest at Nancy and Sharon’s wedding was Sharon’s twin brother, Mark, who will marry Dennis Vaughn on August 30 at San Francisco’s GLBT Center.

The couple met two years ago, and Dennis says, “Very soon we exchanged commitment rings inscribed with ‘I am My Beloved’s, and My Beloved is Mine.’” Dennis had proposed en route to see his 84 year-old mother. “I wanted her blessing,” he says.

“Marriage had been in our minds all along,” Dennis recalls, “especially after the Supreme Court’s overturn.” They felt married early in their relationship, but wanted to make it public. “We wanted the process of the ritual as a rite of passage,” Dennis says. “One that we have not been afforded the right to before now.”

Although Mark and Dennis chose not to wed on the landmark ‘first day’ June 17, they consider their date no less historic. Dennis explains, “We feel it necessary to get married before the November vote and make an affirmative statement about same-sex marriage.”

The November Vote

Although these gay and lesbian couples and thousands of others have conquered the challenges most couples face – getting engaged, setting the date, obtaining parental blessings, find the right attire – they faced challenges heterosexual couples will never know: Proposition 22, and now Proposition 8, appearing on the November 2008 California ballot. Via this “Limit on Marriage Amendment” voters opposing same-sex unions could potentially have the power once again to take it all away.

But their opponents are hard at work too. Like many others, Sharon Papo and Amber Weiss continue to work diligently with Marriage Equality USA. Another couple, Unitarians Reverend Gregory Stewart and partner Stillman Stewart, together 27 years, purposefully have planned their marriage around the November 2 vote. Their wedding will begin the First UU Church’s marriage vigil in San Francisco, during which it will remain open with clergy available 24 hours a day from the Sunday night wedding until close of polls November 4th.

Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis have continued their efforts on behalf of equal rights too. After the nullification of their 2004 marriage, they joined a National Marriage Equality Caravan to Washington, DC. They were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit resulting in the California Supreme Court’s decision on May 15, 2008, and continue to work tirelessly with a number of pro-equality groups to promote the public’s understanding of the marriage issues.

But Stuart explains that striving for equal rights in marriage is nothing new to his family. His mother, Chinese American, and father, English and Irish American, were permitted to wed only because California took the lead in establishing the freedom to marry for interracial couples that June day in 1948, Loving Day.

In spite of a relatively small contingent of non-supporters, June 17, 2008 was a Loving Day too at San Francisco’s City Hall, and also a Freedom Day, a day many community entities bonded together to celebrate the new legislation and the newlyweds. Various religions were represented, including several Jewish Synagogues which joined to offer couples their marriage under the chuppah. Also represented was Reverend Gregory Stewart’s Unitarian Church.

From her basket, a woman passed out wedding favors –candy coated almonds- to celebrants, a travel company displayed brochures on exotic honeymoons, and hundreds of supporters held their banners high. Energy 92.7 broadcast from dawn until dusk and offered newlyweds miniature wedding cakes and cider in memento champagne flutes.

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sang Seasons of Love, San Francisco, and Over the Rainbow, and above it all at the top of the City Hall steps, Bob Sodervick vigorously waved an immense rainbow flag. This was the day hundreds of couples from across the nation were allowed to wed, under the rainbow in the Sunshine State, finally finding their pot of gold.

Post-Election Legislative Update:

November 4th – Another New Page in History

by Susan Hart Hellman, contributing writer

On November 4, 2008, California witnessed another historic event. Proposition 8 was passed by 52% of those voting, an attempt to prevent future same-gender marriages and to revoke the rights of the approximately 18,000 same-gender couples wed after June 16. One couple from the article above, Dennis Vaughn and Mark Petty share their thoughts. “The day after the election at first we were both very depressed and numb,” Dennis says. “Then the next day we became very angry that of all states, California would amend hatred and blatant discrimination into the state constitution.”

Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis felt similarly. “We are enormously grateful to the over 5 million Californians who voted to uphold our marriage and our basic civil rights under the law,” Stuart said. “However, it’s very disturbing to have millions and millions of dollars from out of state used to try to take away our marriage. We are a loving, committed couple of over 21 years — we’re not political footballs to be tossed around in an election year. Our civil rights and dignity under the law should not be up for a popular vote, and should not be subject to whether our opponents’ Karl Rove style political attack ads successfully misled voters.”

Thousands agree, as indicated by ensuing lawsuits including one by the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which charges that Proposition 8, attempting to reverse the state constitution’s commitment to equality by preventing marriage for a targeted group, is invalid. The writ cites impropriety of the initiative process, claiming that radical changes to state government principles cannot occur through simple majority vote and initiative; such changes begin with the legislature. “That didn’t happen with Proposition 8,” these groups specify, “that’s why it’s invalid.”

Other suits included a writ filed with California’s Supreme Court by Gloria Allred on November 5. In a press release, Ms. Allred also cites Proposition 8’s conflicts with the equal protection clause in the California Supreme Court’s May 15, 2008 ruling. She argues that Proposition 8 is “a disguised revision to the constitution which cannot be imposed by the ordinary amendment process, which only requires a simple majority.”

California Attorney General Jerry Brown reports another reason that same-gender marriages since June 16 remain valid: Proposition 8 stipulates no retroactivity for marriages prior to November 4.

So again, Proposition 8 opponents are hard at work. “Mark and I are very vocal and politically active,” Dennis said. “People need to stop hiding, to be visible, and to be vocal.”

John says he and Stuart have been marching, referring to post-election rallies occurring state-wide including an estimated 10,000-person strong West Hollywood march; 5,000 marchers in San Francisco; and 2,500 on the Capitol steps.

As these marchers spread across California, hope does too. John says, “The day we married, surrounded by our parents, family and friends, was the happiest day of our lives together as a family. Today, we are more motivated than ever to stand up for our marriage and get our family’s happiness and dignity back.”

Dennis cited another time when dignity was an issue too. “In the 1940’s California was the first state to pass inter-racial marriage. The groundwork has already been laid out in the law and people just need to catch up to it. Our day will come as well” Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to agree. On CNN he shared his disappointment, saying the issue will return to court, so this is not the end.

Few, if any, same-gender couples consider this the ‘end.’ Dennis says “We feel it is not a matter of if but when Marriage Equality will be the law of the land in all of America.”

Susan Hart Hellman is a freelance writer based in CA: susan@susanharthellman.com