The start of the great San Francisco Marriages of 2004

Let me tell you about how it was on February 12, 2004.

For the past five years or so, my beloved husband and I have been going to Freedom to Marry events near Valentine's Day. On February 12th, there was another rally scheduled, and I almost didn't go.

It's always the same old (boring) thing: ten to fifteen marriage activists, a few onlookers, a minor governmental official, and a symbolic attempt by a gay or lesbian couple to get a marriage license that would get rebuffed. At best we get a few short spots on the evening news; at worst there is no coverage at all.

Since I was already in San Francisco, I finally decided that I should probably go, plus the organizer asked me to bring a few signs. Fine.


My first clue that something was different was seeing about ten TV vans when I got out of the taxi.

It turned out that Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, had instructed the clerk's office to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples. I had heard that, but I had the impression that would take another week or so to get in place. I also didn't really believe that it would actually happen before getting struck down.

However, they were ready on February 12th! That meant that all the couples who had come to our rally expecting to get rebuffed had to suddenly face the opportunity to actually get married instead. (For most, this was a microscopic leap in commitment.)

There were 10-25 TV crews there. There were at least as many, probably more, still photographers there. There newspaper and magazine reporters. There were elected officials. There were crowds of people. I don't know exactly how many couples there were, but it was probably in the 15-30 range.

There were representatives from most of the major gay and lesbian political organizations. (I remember seeing people I knew from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality California, Marriage Equality California, and ACLU, among others.)

It was a little disorganized, without particularly clear herding of the couples. For example, because of a big long line at the metal detectors, we at the back of the line lost sight of the organizers. We gravitated towards a big crowd in the Assessor's office, but it became clear that this was folks getting ready for a press conference, not the place to get a license. So I grabbed the nearest person who looked like he might know something -- Assemblymember Mark Leno -- and asked where couples were supposed to be. He said the Clerk's office, so I stuck up my hand and yelled, "All the couples who want to get married, follow me!" (and then more quietly "uh, Mark, where's the Clerk's office?"). We then wandered around City Hall a bit before a guard showed us where to go.

While couples were going through the license line, Assemblymember Mark Leno and County Assessor Mabel Teng held a press conference. Eventually, the Clerk's Office started emitting couples with licenses. The couple would come down to the Recorder's Office, and they would dodge through the crowd to find an officiant.

It was ecstatic bedlam. At any moment, there were usually about three gravitational wells of a solemnization happening, each with a cluster of cameras in orbit around the three participants; then cameras would spin out as that couple finished up; then a new couple would come from the Clerk's Office and the constellations would re-form around the new couple.

There was also a constant swirling current of print reporters harvesting quotes, newly-minted spouses coursing around with the other newly-minted spouses, officiants looking for new couples, couples looking for officiants, and a few bystanders like me who were just soaking it up all the joy.

Imagine a wedding. Everybody gets happy and misty-eyed, right? Now imagine all that emotion packed into five-minute solemnizations. Now imagine three of them at once. Now imagine that it happens again, then again, then again. Now imagine that these were people who had had very little time -- sometimes less than an hour -- to get used to the fact that they were finally going to get to do something they had never imagined they would be allowed to do. It was an overwhelming experience for me, and I wasn't even a participant, just an onlooker.

So the next time there's a political event that you're not sure you should bother going to, GO. You might be lucky enough to be an intimate witness to history in the making.

Go to part 2 -- Valentine's Day rally

Ducky Sherwood