Saturday, April 3, 2004

Spouses for Life

Spouses for Life
Vanessa Ross

On Monday February 16, 2004, my wife Liz and I were married at San Francisco City Hall, one of the 750 same-sex couples wed that day and the 3700 couples married in the month-long wedding spree. We had no idea we would be standing there exchanging vows and rings and walking out with an official marriage license until two days before it happened. Friday we heard the news that on Thursday, Mayor Gavin Newsom had ordered that the County Clerk change the marriage license application to be gender-neutral so that marriage licenses could be issued to same-sex couples, and that many couples had rushed down to City Hall after hearing it through the grapevine. It was late Friday afternoon, and we assumed we had missed our opportunity. But Saturday, at the gay marriage rally we had already planned to attend in Sacramento, we met two newlyweds who told us that City Hall was staying open through the weekend, and we could still get married. It took us about two seconds to decide to go for it.

A year and a half ago, Liz had surprised me with a diamond ring, asking me to marry her. Having been married (to a man) and divorced just over two years at that point, I was dubious about actually getting married again, but knew that I was ready to commit to a lifelong partnership with Liz. With the caveat that I wasn’t sure about the ceremony part, I accepted her proposal, not knowing exactly what it meant except that we were pledging our love and devotion to each other and our intention to make that last. Besides a level of marriage-phobia that only the divorced can comprehend, my uncertainty stemmed as well from the fact that any wedding we had would be symbolic only, not legally recognized, and that I knew my family was not ready for a lesbian wedding.

But recently I had been thinking more about formalizing our commitment. We were approaching our three-year anniversary and planning to start a family soon. We had been talking about getting matching rings, but didn’t have the money for the kind of rings we wanted at the moment. Then came the Massachusetts court decision in favor of gay marriage, and I asked Liz if we should go there to get married when it became legal in May. We were mulling this prospect over probably right around the time Mayor Newsom was sitting at Bush’s State of the Union address, feeling so offended by our President’s rhetoric of discrimination against gays and lesbians that he began formulating his own plan to make gay marriage happen in San Francisco.

For those of you who don’t know, Mayor Newsom is a straight, white, Catholic, married, moderate Democrat who was just elected last year. He does not have a history of the kind of radical idealism he has displayed in this case, citing the California Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law to all citizens as the legal justification for his actions allowing gay marriage. He did so in spite of the “Defense of Marriage Act” passed two years ago, a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, the constitutionality of which will now be tested. I’m sure he’s hoping that ultimately the issue will go his way and he will gain politically - this man definitely has aspirations beyond San Francisco – but regardless, he took a major personal and professional risk to do the right thing, and that is a rare thing in politics these days.

That the State of the Union provided the genesis for Newsom’s actions couldn’t make me happier. I have never felt so offended as the evening I stood in my kitchen washing dishes as I listened to Bush talk about the sanctity of the family and how the will of the “people” must prevail; translation: my family is not sacred, and I am not one of the people whose rights matter. Even though I vote and pay the same taxes as any straight person, am a law-abiding citizen who spends every day helping other people, I am somehow less deserving of the 1,049 rights afforded to married couples under the law because my partner is a woman. Having gone from belonging to the category of people who are given this privilege, despite the fact that I was pretty confused at the time and in a state of denial about my sexuality, to being one of the minority who are denied it, I can only say that my change of status feels completely arbitrary to me. What is different about me in my current relationship is that I am happier, clearer, unconfused, and feel freer because I am not carrying around the weight of my previous internal and external deceptions. I am living more honestly and am a better person for it, able to cultivate a truly authentic, loving, committed life with my partner. If anything, these factors make this relationship more sacred to me than my first marriage, which only because it was with a man, received the blessing of our society. What could be more arbitrary than that?

So when we heard the cattle call for same-sex couples to come get married at City Hall, we joyfully threw ourselves into the stampede of queers clamoring to tie the knot before someone told us, again, we could not. We got all gussied up and made it down to San Francisco at 9 o’clock Sunday morning, only to find the line already stretching three-quarters of the way around the building. After only an hour, we were told we would not make it in that day and to come back the next day, President’s Day, when weddings would be performed on a first-come, first-served basis. Knowing that Tuesday, when the courts reopened, the anti-gay-marriage folks would be there bright and early to try to stop the love parade, we couldn’t risk missing the opportunity and quickly rearranged our schedules to be off work the next day. This meant I had to be on-call that night (Sunday) for the midwife covering for me the next day. So we went home, went to bed early, and Liz got up at 2 a.m. to go hold our place in line in the cold and rain, along with hundreds of other couples who stayed there all night long. When I got off-call and got down there at 8 a.m. to meet her, the line already stretched around the building again. It was cold and everyone was wet, but no one was complaining. The mood was jubilant, couples cuddled under their umbrellas or makeshift shelters, and everyone was smiling. Volunteers who had been married in the days prior walked the lines with hot coffee, juice, fresh Krispy Kreme donuts, bagels, cookies, gum, water, garbage bags to protect your marriage license from the rain, “Freedom to Marry” stickers, and encouraging words. Every major news agency was there to capture the moment, and at one point a group of Japanese tourists joined in with the paparazzi, clicking off shots of the authentic San Francisco scene.

The long lines continued once inside City Hall as we were guided through a well-organized wedding machine staffed by incredibly friendly city employees who were volunteering their time to be part of this effort, and clearly enjoying every minute of it. The most time-consuming activity was going through the multiple steps of filling out the application for the marriage license and having our written information checked by three different people, then checking it on the computer screen (the only thing that hadn’t been made gender-neutral: Liz was the “Bride” and I was the “Groom”), then swearing that our information was true. We finally were wed at around 1:30 p.m. on one of the balconies of the rotunda, with probably twenty other weddings going on simultaneously in different niches around the huge room. We were married by a lovely man name Jimmer, a city employee who had been drafted to officiate weddings after being married himself to his partner of twenty-something years a few days before. As witnesses we had my good friend Jenna’s mother and her partner of ten years, Wendy, who got married just before us, along with a documentary film crew that had been following us around. Once the moment finally came, we were so overwhelmed that we missed our cues to place our mall-bought sterling silver bands on each other’s fingers at the appropriate moment, but we just laughed, put them on, and let Jimmer pronounce us “Spouses for Life” again. The ceremony was over before we knew it, and we were back in line to wait for our completed, official marriage license. Getting that piece of paper and then walking out with it to a cheering throng of well-wishers and press on the steps of City Hall was an unexpected thrill I will never forget.

So it wasn’t the beautiful, well-planned ceremony surrounded by family and friends we would have envisioned for ourselves, but our wedding was an amazing experience we wouldn’t change for the world. We got to celebrate our love and formalize our commitment to one another while being part of an historic moment in a struggle for freedom and equality, surrounded by the powerful energy of hundreds of other couples doing the same. I cannot see how anyone who witnessed this pure demonstration of love and the simple desire for our families to be recognized could maintain that there is anything dangerous or wrong about it.

Anyone who would like to join the fight against the proposed federal amendment to ban gay marriage that would constitutionalize discrimination for the first time in our nation’s history can log onto the Human Rights Commission website,

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