Gavin’s gay gamble: Mayor Gavin Newsom makes San Francisco a mecca for gay marriage. What was this straight guy thinking?
There is no doubt that in the weeks since San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, he has become something like a rock star to many gay men and lesbians.
The hunky 36-year-old Newsom–who is straight and married to Court TV anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom–has transformed himself from simply a Bay Area politician to a ballsy leader in the national gay and lesbian rights movement. Three months into his term, he has openly thumbed his nose at California’s Proposition 22, a measure passed by voters in 2000 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. He called President George W. Bush’s support for amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage “shameful” and “cowardly.” The Democrat has also placed himself at odds with with openly gay Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, who says the same-sex marriage move is a serious distraction from other legal battles.
“We are talking about a question of the constitutionality of Proposition 22,” Newsom said in a recent interview with The Advocate. “I feel it is absolutely inconsistent with the state constitution, and I feel very strongly that it needed to be challenged, and we are challenging it.”
Newsom’s past provides few clues to his motives, and many political observers are still wondering why Newsom put such huge personal capital into gay and lesbian rights. Born into an affluent San Francisco family and armed with a political science degree from Santa Clara University, Newsom made millions in real estate ventures and as a restaurant owner in the Bay Area before holding political office. Mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the board of supervisors–San Francisco’s city council equivalent–in 1997.
In the past, Newsom’s voting record on gay issues has generally been good, though occasionally vague, says San Francisco supervisor Tom Ammiano, who is openly gay and who also ran for mayor in 2003. “We were from opposite ends of the political scale, and we did not “always get along,” Ammiano says.
Newsom explains his history-making decision this way: “I had the opportunity to go to the State of the Union address and listen to the president’s words [about gay marriage] and DOMA. I felt a great weight of responsibility as the mayor of a city that likes to practice what it preaches.” He secretly began planning to marry gay and lesbian couples and convinced longtime lesbian rights activists Del Martin, 83, and Phyllis Lyon, 79, to be the first to get hitched on February 12–a day the courts were closed and one day before the start of a three-day weekend. [See time line, page 29.]
Newsom told The Advocate, “We wanted to put a human face on this, and Phyllis and Del were critical. Who could deny their loving and lifelong committed relationship? To deny them the same protections as married couples would be to deny them as human beings, not as theory.”
As The Advocate went to press, 3,400 same-sex couples had been married in San Francisco, including Rosie and Kelli O’Donnell. But the legal battle continues. A San Francisco superior court judge could decide on March 29 to bar clerks from issuing any more licenses. A conservative group and the state attorney general have appealed directly to the California supreme court, asking it to immediately halt the marriages. A parallel fight has also begun in New York, where the 26-year-old Green Party mayor of New Paltz, Jason West, married 21 same-sex couples on February 20.
Newsom maintains he’s in the right legally because the California constitution trumps Proposition 22. “I bear truth and faith and allegiance to the constitution–that is my oath and obligation–and nowhere does it allow us to discriminate against people,” Newsom says.
Whatever the legal outcome, Newsom is taking an enormous political gamble, says Tobias Barrington Wolff, an assistant professor of law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. “If all he were doing was trying to promote his career, there would be much safer ways to do this,” Wolff says. “This is about not wanting to participate in an injustice. He is betting he will be on the right side of history on this issue.”
Joe Tuman, a professor of political and legal communications at San Francisco State University, warns, “My fear is that by deliberately challenging the law in San Francisco, Newsom risks a conservative backlash to his position that will make it a campaign issue the conservatives will use.”
But Newsom counters, “We will look back in 15 to 30 years in disbelief that we were ever having this kind of debate. Of that I am absolutely certain.”
RELATED ARTICLE: 13 days in February.
How one mayor’s stand for equal access to marriage rocked the world and led the U.S. president to take a stand for discrimination
THURSDAY, FEB. 12
Newly minted San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom orders the county clerk to issue marriage licenses “on a nondiscriminatory basis” to same-sex couples. California’s constitution. he argues, “clearly outlaws all forms of discrimination.” Pioneering activists and partners for 51 years Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are the first same-sex couple legally married.
FRIDAY, FEB. 13
No bad luck on this day. As same-sex couples line up around City Hall, antigay groups file lawsuits with two San Francisco superior court judges demanding an immediate restraining order to stop the weddings. Both judges decide to wait until the next business day to rule, Because of the President’s Day holiday, that gives San Francisco at least three more days to conduct same-sex marriages. Newsom announces that City Hail will remain open all three days for the purpose of marrying same-sex couples.
SATURDAY, SUNDAY, MONDAY, FEB, 14-16
Hundreds of volunteers, both inside City Hall and outside. offering coffee and doughnuts to those waiting in line, give up their holiday weekend to pitch in. By the weekend’s close the total number of weddings is 2,340.
MONDAY, FEB. 16
Volunteers continue to officiate at the City Hall weddings of gay and lesbian couples, including openly gay state assemblyman Mark Leno and state board of equalization chairwoman Carole Migden (who pauses this week long enough to marry her own partner, Cristina Arguebas). Migden, who had raced back to San Francisco from a trip to Cambodia, marries more then 100 couples in a single day.
TUESDAY, FEB, 17
Both judges decline to stop the weddings immediately, requesting more information from the plaintiffs. New hearings are set for Friday and for March 29.
THURSDAY, FEB. 19
Chicago mayor Richard Daley says he has a “very open mind” about same-sex marriage–but declines to ask that licenses be issued to his city’s gay couples. Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson also stands up for same-sex marriage but says Utah won’t be issuing licenses.
Two protesters against gay marriages are arrested for trespassing after singing Christian hymns in the S.F. clerk’s office.
FRIDAY, FEB. 20
More than 3,000 couples have been married. Judge Ronald Evans Quidachay declines to stop the weddings, telling lawyers for the antigay Campaign for California Families, “You have not made a showing of imminent irreparable harm.” The two cases are combined, the next hearing scheduled for March 29. One man tries to place a citizen’s arrest on a volunteer performing same-sax unions.
SUNDAY, FEB. 22
An estimated 2,000 revelers attend a massive wedding reception at the Hyatt Regency held for same-sex couples married in San Francisco. Lyon and Martin are the guests of honor. The event is described as part potluck and part political rally. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warns that Newsom’s actions could cause other local officials to flout the law: “In San Francisco it is license for marriage of same sex. Maybe the next thing is another city that hands out licenses for assault weapons and someone else hands out licenses for selling drugs; I mean, you can’t do that.”
MONDAY, FEB, 23
Minneapolis resident Mary Van-Leacken is one of hundreds of people who call up a San Francisco florist and have flowers sent to random gay and lesbians couples waiting in line to get married. “Call it the Big Gay Bouquet, call it Flowers From the Heartland,” she writes on her Web site. “Call it whatever you want, But help us get this off the ground.” Flowers begin arriving from as far away as Norway and Australia.
TUESDAY, FEB. 24
Citing events in San Francisco and “activist judges” in Massachusetts, President Bush–who won his job in part because of a narrow court ruling–declares his support for a federal constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriages. The war for equality reaches a fever pitch.
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