Hundreds more couples lined up for marriage vows today after San Francisco's City Hall hosted the state's first legal gay wedding late Monday for two women who waited more than 50 years to tie the knot.
"Today, the institution of marriage has been strengthened and affirmed," San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said Monday after officiating the wedding of 83-year-old Phyllis Lyon and 87-year-old Del Martin. "We will deny no one the right to live their love out loud."
Many more are expected to follow in the footsteps of one of California's most iconic same-sex couples and apply for marriage licenses and exchange vows today — the first day gay and lesbian marriages will be legal throughout the state.
A May 15 California Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage paved the way for the flood of nuptials. While California is the second state after Massachusetts to legalize same-sex unions, the court's decision was hailed as revolutionary — allowing same-sex couples from other states to wed in California as well.
The decision, which took effect at 5:01 p.m. on Monday, is still under threat by a conservative-backed initiative that will ask California to amend the constitution in November and limit marriage to male and female couples. If it succeeds, all same-sex marriages carried out in the next few months will be declared null and void and California will join 44 states with various levels of legal barriers preventing such unions.
The Flood of Nuptials Begins
"A ton of people want to get married," said Alameda County clerk recorder specialist Priscilla Opa. She said same-sex wedding ceremonies are already booked for today and will likely be booked from here on out.
Officials in Sonoma County predicted wedding-related requests would double and extended office work hours throughout June to accommodate them. In San Francisco, officials said 200 couples have already made appointments to obtain marriage licenses today and that 2,303 same-sex couples have appointments for the same in the next three months.
To keep up with demand, counties are beefing up their wedding manpower. San Francisco trained 200 mainly city staff volunteer commissioners to help officiate the weddings. San Diego County recruited 50 extra city employees and Los Angeles County deputized 100 volunteers over the past two weeks to perform nuptials.
According to a UCLA study issued last week, the extra preparation will be necessary. It's estimated that half of California's more than 100,000 same-sex couples will get married over the next three years, and 68,000 out-of-state couples will travel to the state to exchange vows. Nuptials are predicted to generate 2,200 jobs and $64 million in tax revenue for the state, which is in the midst of a budget crisis.
Not everyone is thrilled about those facts. While it is now illegal to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses, officials in Kern, Calaveras and Butte counties took advantage of a loophole and suspended weddings for all couples. They say it's not technically discriminating against sexual preference.
Many clerks are also choosing to opt out of officiating ceremonies. Opa said employees in her Alameda office have letters from their churches outlining religious reasons why they can't participate.
Wedding of an Iconic Couple
While today will be a special day for many same-sex partners, one of the most talked about weddings will undoubtedly be the union between Lyon and Martin that took place yesterday at 5:01 p.m.
After a closed ceremony where Newsome pronounced the couple "spouses for life," the pair emerged to greet a crowd of well-wishers.
"I think it's a wonderful day," Lyon said as the light from the rotunda cast a glow on the three-tiered butter cream wedding cake.
Newsom selected the pair to be the first couple married in City Hall on Monday to recognize their 55-year relationship and their role as leaders of the gay rights movement. In 1955, Lyon and Martin helped found the first lesbian rights organization. After their 2004 San Francisco marriage during the winter of love was declared void, they and a dozen other couples battled the state to allow gays and marries to wed – helping forge the May 15 ruling.
"They are an inspiration and could teach us all — straight or gay — a thing or two about love and commitment and relationships," said John Weber, emperor of the San Francisco Imperial Court, a nation-wide gay and lesbian organization.
"This is the moment historians will write about," said Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). "This is a new day — a day we're all proud to witness."
As expected, opinions about any same-sex marriage are as diverse as the colors on the rainbow flags being draped around the state.
Fifteen-year-old Adrienne Von Schulthess, said this was a wonderful and important moment for her family — her two mothers and 13-year-old brother. "Finally, I feel like everyone recognizes us as a family."
"A lot of people say 'You have all the legal rights, why do you need the word marriage to define you?" asked Beatrice, Adrienne's mother. "Words and labels matter and this label is a powerful, important label and symbol of our love." While Beatrice's 2004 nuptial was declared void, she plans to marry her partner of 20 years in the upcoming weeks.
"We're excited California is catching up," said Louise Pedersen, a tourist from Denmark, a country that has recognized lesbian and gay partnerships ("marriages" in all but name) since 1989. "It's about time."
"This is just fair," said attorney Carol Gordon. "Its mind boggling that it took this long for us to get here. It's just a logical step."
But not everyone agrees and opposition has been fierce. Outside the Lyon and Martin wedding in City Hall, protesters sang anti-gay songs and carried signs like "Homosexuality Is a Threat to National Security" and "Re-criminalize Sodomy."
What Does God Hate?
"God hates them and they're going to hell," said 15-year-old Grace Phelps-Roper as she stood on top of a rainbow flag. She and two others were part of a group from traveling from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, to protests the weddings.
Her mother and the church's attorney, Shirley Phelps-Roper, didn't attend. She was off to D.C. to picket another event — Tim Russert's funeral. She said Russert was not an activist for "biblical marriages."
Three signs down, 17-year-old Mike Choban said it was his duty to warn the wicked on behalf of God. "The gays will be judged," he said.
"I don't like the court's decision at all. Gays whine and complain when they don't get their way. We have to look in the Bible and understand that marriage is between a man and a woman," said Greg Giusti, as he thumbed through the pages of his Bible. "God will judge you and wants us to vote for male and female unions in November!"
While many, like Dina Hilliard, expressed "mixed feelings" about same-sex marriages, the issue is expected to draw passionate responses from both sides of the debate. And protestors have vowed to come back to picket same-sex marriages in the upcoming months.
Groups like the Liberty Counsel and the Campaign for California Families (CCF), a nonprofit group for the sanctity of man and women marriages, have vowed to defeat the November ballot initiative that will ask voters to amend the constitution and define marriage as only between a man and woman.
"I'm confident that California will watch everyone flash their marriage certificates around and react," said Randy Thomasson, founder and president CCF. "Maybe same-sex marriages is a good thing. It will just make the backlash stronger."
Thomasson says they are busy drumming up support and educating the public about the alleged danger same-sex marriages pose to the sanctity of marriage, as well as the threat the court's decision poses to the sanctity of the state constitution.
Then there is the other side. "I'm confident that people will respond to the love and commitment that so many of these same-sex couples represent," said Shannon Price Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and lead council who represented more than dozen couples who battled the state Supreme Court and May 15 ruling.
He said he's hopeful California will live up to its role as a progressive state — the kind of state that paves the way for justice in all the others.
"We've got a fight ahead of us," said Newsome. "It is critical to the success of our efforts to defeat this amendment. I don't want all of this to be for naught."