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  • Sasha Issenberg

February 12, 2004: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defies state law with marriage order

ON THIS DAY IN 2004...

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began marrying gay and lesbian couples at City Hall in defiance of state law.

On January 21, the newly elected mayor had been on Capitol Hill, as a guest of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to watch President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. There Bush had declared “our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage” and indicated his openness to a constitutional amendment that would forbid states from recognizing same-sex unions. Jarred by Bush’s desire to federalize what had traditionally been a purview of state governments, Newsom called his chief of staff and said he wanted “to do something,”

Two weeks later, they set a plan into motion. On February 10, Mayor Gavin Newsom asked the San Francisco County Clerk to take whatever steps would be necessary to “provide marriage licenses on a non-discriminatory basis, without regard to gender or sexual orientation.” The clerk’s office edited the city’s forms and documents to be gender-neutral, and made plans to start marrying couples en masse that Friday. It was a Friday, and if city officials could keep word of their scheme quiet until then, no court would likely hear a challenge to it until after the President’s Day holiday. That Saturday was Valentine’s Day, and Newsom made plans to keep city hall open for the occasion.

On the afternoon of Thursday, February 12, the mayor’s staff discreetly welcomed Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, an elderly couple who as founders of the pioneering lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis were living evidence of San Francisco’s long history of gay-rights activism. Only after Martin and Lyon exchanged vows in a ceremony inside the office of City Assessor Mabel Tang did Newsom announce that the city stood ready to marry any same-sex pair who could make it to city hall.

At least fifty other couples were married that day, with 1600 more following suit over the course of the weekend. Worldwide media coverage followed, at once humanizing many Americans to a once-abstract civil-rights demand and radicalizing Bush to finally endorse a constitutional amendment in response. “I have watched carefully what’s happening in San Francisco, where licenses were being issued, even though the law states otherwise,” he said on February 18. “Obviously these events are influencing my decision.”

It would take nearly a month for a judge to halt the San Francisco marriages, and four years for the California Supreme Court to adjudicate the underlying constitutional issue. In the summer of 2008, the court ruled that the state’s existing statutory ban on same-sex marriage unfairly discriminated against gays and lesbians. The first couple married under the new régime was again Martin and Lyon, with Newsom conducting the ceremony. Their 2004 wedding had had no legal effect, but had set in motion a cycle of political action and legal reaction within a decade would end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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