This summer, we’re changing things up a bit at Life of the Law. We’re presenting some amazing audio documentaries produced by at universities and colleges around the country. Our first story is from Aviva DeKornfeld of Pitzer College in Southern California.
Aviva was curious about marriage. Marrying the person you love is the ideal, right? But what happens when you find your mate, your dream, your love, and you get married but then a few months later, the government tells you never mind, your marriage doesn’t count. Aviva has the story…
My mom loves to tell the story about how one morning we were driving to pre-school, when she heard me sigh from my booster seat in the back and say, “Ugh, when am I gonna get married?” I actually remember doing this as a three year old, and when my mom reminded me of my age, and said I could get married when I was older, I remember having the three year old version of the thought, well that’s seems very ageist.
I couldn’t be bothered waiting, and so I soon tied the knot with Raffi Karpouzian under the slide at recess. Raffi and I stayed together until fifth grade, when we went to different middle schools. And that’s still my longest relationship to date.
This is a story about a group of people who felt the same impatience I did. This is about how one foggy, February morning, hundreds of couples didn’t let their moms, or anyone else stop them from getting married.
KENDELL: It’s important, I guess, to set a little context, so let me do that first. So this is January 2, 2004. We have a war in Iraq. George W. Bush is the president.
This is Kate Kendell, the Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.
KENDELL: In June of 2003, the court struck down the remaining laws that criminalize same-sex sexual intimacy. So…we weren’t criminals anymore for having sex with each other. And then in November…we won marriage in Massachusetts.
KENDELL: So then 2004, George W. Bush gives his State of the Union in January and he endorses the idea of a federal constitutional amendment to ban marriage between same sex couples.
BUSH: On an issue of such great consequence, the people’s voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.
Sitting in the audience during the State of the Union address was the new mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom. And immediately following the address, like, seconds after the address ended, he went outside, called his staff and said,
KENDELL: “I want to do something about this for same-sex couples. What can we do?”
KENDELL: And they came up with the idea of him issuing an edict that San Francisco would begin marrying same-sex couples. And my initial reaction was not, “Oh, wow! That’s awesome! We’ll be there with, you know, flowers and cake.” I was…just worried about what the backlash might be to the mayor doing that. But…by Sunday, I’d totally done a 180 and was pretty much—I remember actually driving along in the car, thinking, “You know what? Game on. I mean, let’s, let’s do this.
Now, it should be noted that, Gavin Newsom had only been elected one month before this, and he won by a narrow margin. And Newsom is a straight, Irish-Catholic, centrist Democrat—needless to say, an unlikely hero of the gay rights’ movement. So I think he surprised nearly everyone when he decided to put his relatively young political career on the line in order to, not only support same-sex marriage, but make a very public showing of his dedication to gay rights.
Mayor Newsom didn’t end up issuing licenses that Monday. Instead, Kate met with Newsom’s staff, and coached them on how to prepare the mayor.
KENDELL: I suggested that Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon be the first couple, and everybody of course said that’s fabulous.
DEKORNFELD: Why did you suggest them?
KENDELL: Because they are probably the most iconic…and important LGBT people living in San Francisco. They founded the first lesbian organization, back in the 1950s. Very courageous thing to do back then.
DEKORNFELD: What was the conversation like between you and Phyllis and Del?
KENDELL: Well, it was hilarious. They had never been proponents of marriage because, you know, they’re old-line feminists, right? And so they were like, “Marriage is aping the patriarchy, and why would we do that?” But they understood that it branded us as inferior to not be able to marry. And so, I remember vividly calling them… Phyllis answered the phone and I said, “I have one more thing that I need you to do for the movement.” And Phyllis said, “Oh, really? What’s that?” And I said, “I want to know if you’ll be the first couple married in San Francisco by Mayor Newsom on Thursday.” And she said, “Well, let me ask Del.” And so I hear her talking in the background, and she comes back really just two minutes later and says, “We’ll do it.” And so it wasn’t particularly romantic, but it was—yeah, it’s just vintage Del and Phyllis.
DEKORNFELD: What was it like to watch them get married?
KENDELL: It was electrifying…my heart was beating out of my chest. I mean, I knew we were doing something transgressive in the sense that the mayor wasn’t supposed to probably be doing this. But…it started to really sink in, “Oh, holy shit! We are doing a really huge thing here.”
After more than 50 years together, Del and Phyllis got married at 11 in the morning, on February 12th, 2004, which, not coincidentally,
LEWIS: Was National Freedom to Marry day, and on that day, couples…would go to clerks’ offices and ask for marriage licenses and traditionally, inevitably, be turned down.
John Lewis is a gay rights activist and attorney, and half of one of the first couples to get married in 2004.
LEWIS: It’s a dehumanizing experience…to stand there and just say no, you can’t get married. But it would be an opportunity to present a real human experience of a denial of your constitutional rights, because you would stand in the discrimination.
Stuart Gaffney is John’s husband. He says it’s surprising how emotional the whole process was.
GAFFNEY: Even knowing that you’re going to be turned down…when you’re told no and you’re standing there with the love of your life, it’s just so personal. It not only shows the rest of the world what the discrimination looks like, but you feel that so intimately. And you also feel the arbitrariness, because sometimes when we would go to the marriage counter, we would, if we were there with two women doing the same thing, we would sometimes offer to the clerk and say, “Well what if we switch partners? So I’m here with the man I love and that I’m spending the rest of my life with, and you say we can’t get married. But what if I say instead, I would like to marry this person, who is a relative stranger to me, that I don’t love, that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with, but she happens to be a woman?” And then clerk will say, “Yeah, sure. Just pay the fee, and you can get married right now.”
OAKLEY: In most California counties, the county clerk would hide in his or her office on that day.
Freddie Oakley was a clerk for Yolo County in California.
OAKLEY: And I thought that was just wrong so I decided I was gonna do the ugly job and it turned out to be so much more heartbreaking that I ever expected it to be. It was horrible to stand there and to tell them that no you’re a sub-citizen, you may not become married.
So Freddie did something different.
OAKLEY: I started issuing something I called certificates of inequality. When I couldn’t give people a license to marry, instead I would give them this beautifully prepared, signed certificate that said, “Because some people don’t like the way you live, I can’t give you a marriage license.”
Freddie paid for these herself, and printed hundreds of them.
One year, she also donated to an organization called Marriage Equality USA for every couple she had to deny. Another year, she offered couples an IOU.
OAKLEY: To be silent in the face of discrimination is extremely painful…I am a serious minded Christian woman and I study theology and I think about this stuff and I’m absolutely persuaded… that discrimination was never part of Jesus’s plan.
On that Thursday morning in February 2004, as Phyllis and Del were getting married, John joined other Freedom to Marry protesters on the steps of City Hall. That’s where he spotted the then-head of the advocacy group Marriage Equality, Molly McKay. He walked up to her and said,
LEWIS: “Hi, I’m here for the rally. What’s the plan?” And she just said, “You can go right in City Hall and get married right now.” And I was just like, “Ba-ba-ba-what?” I was flabbergasted, astonished, and I was like freaking, panicking, because I don’t have my husband, my fiancée, my husband-to-be, and I didn’t own a cell phone.
Luckily, Molly did.
LEWIS: So Molly said, “Here, you can use my cell phone,” and I was just like, “How does it work? What do you do?” Eventually, she or somebody else said that if I gave them the phone number, they would punch it in for me. So they did, and I got Stuart on the line.
GAFFNEY: It was the most urgent wedding proposal ever. It was like, “Get to City Hall right now!”
GAFFNEY: There was no question in our minds that we would get married. We’d been together for 17 years at that point. We’d been living as married, but we’d never had a ceremony, we’d never exchanged vows. And suddenly, this was our time.
GAFFNEY: And anyway, so I jumped up…I actually didn’t even tell my coworkers where I was going…I just ran out of the office. And I got to City Hall as quickly as I could…and there was John, sort of the nervous groom almost, like pacing back and forth like, “Where is my groom-to-be?” And then, we ran through the doors of City Hall.
GAFFNEY: And then it was one of these interesting moments where I realized, we’d gone to so many other people’s weddings. but we actually, because it seemed that marriage was always going to be for someone else and never for us, we were not aware of the literal mechanics…well how do you get married? So we went through the metal detectors inside the door of City Hall, and then we looked at each other like what do we do now? Where do we go? How do you get married?
GAFFNEY: So we asked the security guard, and he kind of rolled his eyes, and he said, “Do you see where that CNN crew is heading? That’s where you’re getting married.”
John and Stuart stood in line, they filled out the paperwork, but then the clerk asked for the form back.
GAFFNEY: We knew that people must be in court right now, trying to stop these marriages. So the idea that they would ask for the forms back, it was like well this is just creating more delay, I mean what if we miss our chance?
The clerk explained that bride and groom have legal definitions, so they had to redo the forms to say Party A and Party B.
LEWIS: I remember very vividly when the clerk said, “I need the form…back. And I just remember grasping ahold of it so tightly and thinking, I don’t know if I’m going to give it to you back, and just saying so. “You don’t know how long we have waited for something like this. You just don’t know.”
LEWIS: When we got the form, in this…just most bureaucratic, deadpan manner, she handed us the pregnancy and family planning information, and it was just hysterical, you know. At the same time, it felt really, really great. She is treating us just like everybody else…No better, no worse; same bureaucratic treatment.
GAFFNEY: And so we redid the form, and we paid our fee. And there were a group of city officials and workers…who had volunteered and been trained as officiants. And it was a little bit like gym class, where like the couples lined up on one side of the room, and the officiants lined up on the other side, and then they’re like, “Okay, pair off. Each couple find an officiant and go get married.”
GAFFNEY: And I remember our officiant was Craig Dziedzic. He was a little nervous himself…he said, “I have to say, guys, I’m going to do the best I can, but this is my first time.” And we said, “You know what, it’s our first time, too, so no worries. We’re all in this together.”
GAFFNEY: Many people are nervous on their wedding day…But in a sense, I felt butterflies for a different reason. I mean, these were like history-making marriages, and there we were.
BAILES: My name is Shelly Bailes. I’ve been married twice. The first time was on February 12, 2004, and the second time was June 16, 2008.
PONTAC: What a coincidence! You know, I’m Ellen Pontac, and I got married at exactly the same times. It’s just incredible!
While Stuart and John were getting married, Shelly and Ellen were busy planning a gay rights rally in Sacramento for the following Saturday. They had the radio on while they worked, when they heard that Gavin Newsom had issued a marriage license for Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin.
BAILES: I said, “Something’s going on in San Francisco. We should really go see what’s happening, this was about, I think 1:30…And so we changed our jeans; we put on clean jeans and we got in the car, and I don’t know how I made it, but I made into San Francisco in about an hour. And we get into the front of City Hall and just right—the first parking space in front of City Hall had a covered meter on it and—
PONTAC: Yea, like a paper bag, you know, because the needle was broken.
BAILES: Yea, and I went, “Whoa!” and I pulled in at that space and we ran into City Hall and all our friends were standing there…and they had all gotten married and they said, “Oh, you guys getting married?” We both looked at each other and we said, “I guess so.”
BAILES: We had no plans of getting married or anything.
PONTAC: It had never crossed our minds to get married—
DEKORNFELD: So there was really no discussion about whether or not you’d get married?
PONTAC: No. Because it was just an impossibility.
BAILES: We had no idea what was going on. Maybe only Phyllis and Del were allowed to get married. We didn’t know that he opened it up to other people. We had no idea. We just went there just to find out what was going on.
BAILES: You know, we had to walk down the hall and go to the office and we got our little number. We were number 45. And Ellen looks at me and she said, “The camera’s in the car. I forgot the camera…I have to go get the camera.” And, with that, she leaves and she disappears, and of course I’m holding the number and I’m standing there all by myself and the woman says, “Number 45!” And I go, “Oh, shit!”
BAILES: And so these two men were sitting on the bench…and…they saw what happened and they said, “You know, I have number 54,” or something, “Why don’t we switch numbers and I’ll go in…” I said, “I’ve been waiting 34 years for this number. I’m not giving it up.” And, with that, Ellen came running down with the camera…so we filled out the paperwork and Mark Leno married us.
PONTAC: You know, I would say it was a dream come true, except we never had that dream.
Gay rights activist Torie Osborn heard about the Mayor’s decision on the news.
OSBORN: I mean, everybody on the planet, at least in California, knew that he was giving out licenses. The magnetic attraction to San Francisco to be part of this was huge.
Torie lives in Los Angeles. And a few weeks after Phyllis and Del married, Torie and her partner of five years, Lydia, boarded an airplane for San Francisco along with several other gay couples and friends.
OSBORN: There were seventeen people in our party on Southwest Airlines, a 7:00 am flight, flying to San Francisco. And…The entire plane, commuter plane, mostly, of course, straight, started singing with this wedding party, “We’re getting married in the morning.” The entire plane. The pilot got on the intercom, congratulated us. It was one of the most wonderful experiences. And the whole day was like that it was magic.
KENDELL: This city was electric.
LEWIS: It was just fantastic.
GAFFNEY: At that moment what San Francisco City Hall symbolized to the rest of the world it…was just a beacon of hope. And there was this famous effort, where these folks in the Midwest raised money—
BAILES: —and…called up a florist and said, “I want you to deliver flowers to as many people as there are there, and so that anybody that would want a bouquet of flowers would have it.” And trucks, literally cars full of…bouquets of flowers would pull up and he paid, this guy paid for it all.
GAFFNEY: We all heard this honking…and I turned around, and it was a taxicab that had a big sign, and it said, “Free rides for newlyweds.”
BAILES: And pizza places would pull up with loads of pizza pies in the back of their cars cause people were just, you know, in line, they were hungry and everything. And I…actually saw these two men and they had a couple of kids, and one of the men said, “My kids are starving…Here’s $20 for pizza,” and the guys said, “We’re not taking money today.”
GAFFNEY: One time, a car pulled up outside City Hall, and a baker got out with a giant wedding cake. And he just walked up to the doors of City Hall, and he started slicing it. And as newlyweds came out the door, just having exchanged vows, he would hand them a slice of cake.
OSBORN: I want to tell you that for me, to go inside City Hall, not 100 yards from where Harvey Milk was assassinated, where I had yelled in protest and cried in pain, to be married in City Hall…and to get a license…It was when I realized what a revolutionary act it was.
PONTAC: It was just magical. It really was, I don’t know how else to say it.
BAILES: I never saw so many happy, happy people. I mean, the people in line that had slept there and everything, they were just so happy.
KENDELL: It felt like San Francisco is once again showing the nation what we should be and how our better angels should be operating…It didn’t feel like there was anyone in the city that wasn’t completely over the moon about what was happening.
LEWIS: There was this illusion that homophobia had ended.
LEWIS: To…in a sense be told the happiest day of your life, null and void, and of no legal effect. It’s pretty final.
PONTAC: I just burst out crying. You know, what’s left to do?
On August 12th, 2004, exactly six months after Phyllis and Del were declared spouses for life, the California Supreme Court ruled that Mayor Newsom had overstepped his authority, and declared all 4,037 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples null and void.
LEWIS: It was a terrible moment, obviously. You know, it was devastating. We were once again…being thrown back into inequality…And so, to be consigned back to not married, you know, not for you, it wasn’t completely unexpected for us, we still felt it. We felt it very strongly. Felt it very strongly.
OSBORN: I was driving on the freeway when I heard on the radio that the Supreme Court had nulled, anulled, whatever it was…all of our marriages…
OSBORN: I burst into tears…I had to pull my car off, and…I wept. It was such grief. And I got phone calls from straight friends that night the way you get phone calls when somebody dies. I remember it was a profoundly emotional experience of discrimination…It just hit me in a different place. I mean, I have had scary looking guys in trucks yell, “fucking dyke!” at me. I mean it’s not that I haven’t experienced homophobia, or lesbophobia, or whatever you want to call it. But I had never so quickly been swept up into this kind of social movement moment…personally, been part of this kind of wonderful magical day. I did it for political reasons, right? Civil disobedience; I want to be part of history. Intellectually, I knew that this was not going to last, legally. But it didn’t penetrate. It didn’t matter what my head said. My heart got engaged…I mean, I cried more over the loss of that privilege…and the discrimination to the heart. It was really something else, and it shocked the hell out of me.
When it comes to issues like abortion and access to birth control, people often talk about the personal becoming political, but in this case, the opposite happened: “the political became personal.”
After the marriages were voided, years of political drama ensued. There was legislative back and forth, including the controversial proposition 8, which voters narrowly passed. It added an amendment to the state constitution that stated only heterosexual marriage was valid in California. A few years later a federal court ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional and in 2012, California legalized same-sex marriage once and for all.
Then last year, the Supreme court ruled all bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Gay marriage was finally legal in all fifty states. The day the ruling was announced, people in San Francisco flooded the streets in celebration.
KENDELL: My name is, my name is Kate Kendell with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Fuck you Prop 8. (laughing, cheering) Because we have lived for too many years under that stigmatizing piece of crap that diminished us and that eliminated our right to marry and made us feel less than. But I’ll tell you something, when Prop 8 passed, and you all know this, you stepped up and galvanized in a way that made today possible! This is why we’re here.
For John, it didn’t take long for the reality of gay marriage to sink in.
LEWIS: I’m married just as much as anybody else is, and I’m never relinquishing that. And it’s profound to just be able to look anybody in the eye and start to not even think that my ability to be married was ever up for grabs.
Many of the people I spoke with were skeptical of the institution of marriage before getting married themselves. Here’s Kate Kendall from the National Center for Lesbian Rights:
KENDELL: I had a pretty critical critique of marriage as, you know, unfair to women, not egalitarian in the way it should be…I now want to take everything back and be like, “Okay, I was totally wrong. It’s an amazing experience.”
Torie Osborn says as a gay rights activist, marriage was never her issue.
OSBORN: And suddenly, we saw why it was so important…It was like being part of a club, we were suddenly members of a club. It was the common language with straight people.
Ellen Pontac says sharing that common language changed the ways in which she related to others.
PONTAC: One of the things about marriage is that it’s recognized around the world. It gives you a different place. And I remember—I mean, for years there was this young man who was always Shelly’s brother’s son, and one day he became my nephew. I mean, it just changes the dynamic in a way that people understand and see things.
John echoes this idea.
LEWIS: I know at one point, Stuart’s mother had a big family reunion, and she decided she would introduce me as, “This is John, who is a member of our family.” Like, did you adopt him? Or like, I don’t know!
But now, Stuart’s parents have another option. They can say, “This is my son, and this is my son-in-law.”
Despite my childhood enthusiasm, over the years I had become pretty skeptical of marriage. I mean, half of all marriages end in divorce. But after talking with John and Stuart and the other couples, my excitement started to rekindle. I realize that marriage doesn’t have to mean just one thing and it can look more than one way, and besides, if so many people fought this hard to be able to marry, then maybe my three-year-old self was right. It must be worth giving a try.
For Life of the law, I’m Aviva DeKornfeld.
WINTER OF LOVE was reported and produced by Aviva DeKornfeld and edited by Ibby Caputo with sound design and production assistance by Jonathan Hirsch. We want to thank Ora DeKornfeld, Aviva’s sister and an Independent Documentary Filmmaker, Kevin Moffett, Professor of Creative Writing, Claremont McKenna College and Life of the Law’s Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle for their production support. Music by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear and Lowercase Noises. Howard Gelman was our engineer.
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I’m Nancy Mullane. Thanks for listening.