With quiet pride and a sense of history, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples across California wed Tuesday, giving a human face to a landmark court decision and a powerful opening salvo in what is expected to be a bruising fall campaign in the state over the issue of same-sex marriage.
The marriages in San Francisco and in many counties began just after 8 a.m. Pacific time, with the opening of the clerk's office. But unlike 2004, when the city broke state law to wed thousands of gay couples in a mad rush, many of Tuesday's ceremonies had a sense of calm and permanence for gay newlyweds.
“It was so legally ambiguous last time,” said Lorie Franks, 43, who had come to City Hall to marry her partner, Anne Mary Franks, in 2004, as well. “It was really touching, but we kind of knew it was on thin ice. This time, to me, feels more real.”
The weddings began in a handful of locations around the state at exactly 5:01 p.m. Monday, the earliest time allowed by the California Supreme Court decision. County clerks' offices in all 58 counties were authorized to begin issuing the licenses Tuesday.
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In San Francisco, Del Martin, 87, and Phyllis Lyon, 84, longtime gay rights activists, were the first and only couple to be wed Monday, saying their vows in the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom, before emerging to a throng of reporters and screaming well-wishers.
The selection of Martin and Lyon as San Francisco's first same-sex married couple was symbolic; the couple wed here once before, in 2004, when the city issued more than 4,000 marriage licenses and conducted weddings in City Hall in contravention of state law. Those marriages were later invalidated by the state Supreme Court.
On May 15, however, the same court struck down the two California laws that prohibited such unions. Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, and more than 10,500 couples have wed there.
Same-sex marriage has been hotly contested nationwide and state by state in the courts and at the ballot box, and California is no exception. In November, the state's voters will decide whether to effectively rescind the court's decision through a ballot measure that would define marriage as “between a man and a woman.”
Forty-four states have enacted some sort of legal barrier – either a law or constitutional amendment – barring such unions. In 2004 alone, 13 states passed ballot measures banning same-sex marriage.
This year, however, proponents of same-sex marriage have found encouragement in both the California Supreme Court decision and in a subsequent order by Gov. David Paterson of New York, instructing agencies in his state to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere.
The California court has also rebuffed several challenges to its May 15 decision, made by two conservative legal groups and by Republican attorneys general who fear the California marriages will lead to legal challenges in their own states.
One challenge was filed last week by the Liberty Counsel, a group based in Florida that wanted the California Court of Appeal to halt the weddings. Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said the ceremonies “make a mockery of marriage.”
But on Tuesday, in Palm Springs, before a small army of reporters and photographers, Mayor Steve Pougnet married the first gay couple in Riverside County to obtain a marriage license after the ruling, Dean Seymour, 44 and Philip Colavito, 43, of Palm Springs.
The two men, together for eight years, own an interior decorating business.
After Pougnet pronounced them married, both men embraced, kissed and screamed in unison, “We did it!”
“If we have to do it again, we'll do it again until they get it right,” Colavito said in response to a question about the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage in California.
“We're as normal as everyone else and we deserve the right to marry,” Seymour said.