Twenty years ago, my then-partner Nick and I participated in an act of “municipal anarchy.”
In other words: We got married. For the first time but not, as it turned out, the last.
On Friday morning, Feb. 13, 2004, Nick set aside the San Francisco Chronicle, turned to me at our dining room table, and asked, "Do you want to get married today?”
Recently elected San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had made national, if not global, headlines by defying state and federal laws and encouraging same-sex couples to come to City Hall and get married.
I’d just returned from visiting my mother in North Carolina and was groggy from jet lag and lack of caffeine. So I hesitated. "Let me finish my latte before I answer,” I said.
But I already knew my response. After a few sips, I rose from my chair. "Let’s do it. While we still can.”
Next came a frenzy of phone calls to close friends. "Meet us at City Hall at 11:00,” we announced. “We're getting married…today!"
We dressed hastily and like firemen to a fire, we raced to City Hall, where we encountered hundreds of other couples lined up to get marriage licenses.
Everywhere we looked, at the bottom of the City Hall Rotunda’s grand staircase, up the steps, behind the steps, to the sides of the steps and in the hallways, amidst cheers and high fives, couples were exchanging their vows. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. Or since — with one possible exception.
And yet, as Nick and I inched forward in the line, I felt conflicted.
On the positive side, after almost 23 years together, Nick and I were getting married! I thought back to 1979, when two of my sisters were married within a month of each other. At the last of the weddings, several people asked me, "When are you getting married?"
After what seemed like the tenth time I’d been asked this question, I offered up a cheeky response:
"Just as soon as it's legal."
Now, all these years later, I was about to get married at last. But would it be, in fact, legal?
Beyond the fabulous bubble of queer acceptance that is San Francisco, as well as Massachusetts and a few other places here and there, support for same-sex marriage was largely non-existent at the time.
In fact, on that Friday when Nick and I exchanged our vows, “opponents of gay marriage sought two separate injunctions to stop the (San Francisco) county clerk from issuing the licenses, declaring that the new policy amounted to ‘municipal anarchy,’ in the words of one of their lawyers,” The New York Times reported the next day.
Same-sex marriage wasn’t legally recognized in California. Nor was it legal on a federal level. Bill Clinton had signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, denying federal recognition of same-sex marriages. George W. Bush, who was President at the time of the San Francisco municipal anarchy, was talking about a constitutional amendment to prevent same-sex marriages.
Other forces that be — my mother — would be equally opposed, as I would soon discover.
At last, Nick and I obtained our marriage license. From there, we were connected with a pale young man with red hair who officiated our ceremony. Surrounded by friends, Nick and I placed the wedding rings we’d already been wearing for years — because why not? — on each other’s hands.
Our friend Mary wrangled a local radio news reporter and brought her and her colleague over to where we were getting married. That afternoon, we made the local news broadcast. Even though the reporter got both of our last names wrong, Nick’s boss later told him, "I heard you getting married on the radio! I'd know your voice anywhere!"
“Why Did You Want to Get Married?”
Over the weekend, I teetered between exhaustion, elation and uncertainty. How would I introduce Nick to strangers now? As my husband? That felt odd. Or should I continue to call him my partner? That didn’t feel right, either.
A few straight friends we shared our news with were supportive but also a bit concerned, or maybe just confused. "Why did you want to get married, if you’re already domestic partners? Especially since your marriage will probably be annulled?"
After congratulating us, a gay acquaintance asked, “Why did you want to adopt a heteronormative tradition? Shouldn’t the queer community create our own traditions?”
Both had asked us essentially the same question: Why?
Here’s why: Domestic partnership was, to us, second-class citizenship. Separate — and not equal.
Also, we believed we deserved the same benefits — financial, legal, societal — that other couples enjoy.
There were other reasons.
Nick and I had connected instantly, nearly 23 years earlier, when we were both living in a small Southern city. We had to hide our relationship — our true natures — for years, for fear of losing our jobs. We made it through the terrifying AIDS epidemic together. We made the momentous move to the West Coast together.
And every day, we can’t wait to sit next to each other at breakfast. That was true in 1981; it was true in 2004; it is true today; it will be true tomorrow.
So. Why did we get married? Because we wanted to.
With Sweaty Palms, I Called My Mother
Also during that weekend, I worked up the courage to tell my mother the news.
I could have waited to share the news — or just not told her at all, which is what one of my sisters suggested. But I’d learned in psychotherapy, and from life experience, that avoiding potential conflict with someone you care about is a poor strategy. It just makes the deferred conflict worse when it inevitably happens.
The Sunday after our wedding, with sweaty palms, dry throat, and pounding pulse, I called my mother. She answered cheerfully, with that charming North Carolina lilt in her voice — “Hey hon-EY!”
After a few pleasantries, I told her about the weddings at City Hall, and that Nick and I were among the hundreds of gay and lesbian couples who had gotten married.
She was quiet for a few, long seconds. And then: "Why did you have to go and do that?"
I gave her our reasons. “Well,” she said, after another pause. “I feel like I lost my son!” And then she hung up.
I wanted to call her back. I hadn’t expected her to approve, but I was hoping she might understand, at least a little.
After about five days, I called her back. She sounded like her old self, greeting me with that familiar lilt.
I made small talk for a minute or so. Then I asked if she’d thought any more about our last conversation.
Startled, I reminded her of my news — only to endure her ire again, as white-hot as it had been the first time.
“I can see you’re not ready to talk about this in a calm manner,” I said. “So I’ll talk to you later.” She was about to respond when I hung up.
I was upset but mostly baffled. How could she not remember that conversation?
Soon enough, I was to recognize this as the moment when my mother’s decline into dementia could no longer be ignored.
An Ending, A Beginning, Another Ending, Another Beginning
The “municipal anarchy” ended March 11, 2004, when the California Supreme Court ordered San Francisco not to issue any additional licenses that didn’t conform to state marriage statutes.
In August 2004, the 4,000-some same-sex marriage licenses issued in San Francisco were declared void. Nick and I went back to being domestic partners — and returned to City Hall along with other couples to mark the one-year anniversary. (See TV news clip below.)
In June 2008, California began allowing same-sex couples to get married. We raced back to City Hall for our second wedding on June 27, 2008.
But would this one stick? We had reason to wonder.
Later that year, Proposition 8 passed in California, closing the door again on same-sex marriages across the state. This time, however, the marriage licenses previously granted to queer couples remained valid.
Same-sex marriages were allowed to resume in California beginning in late June, 2013.
If all of this back-and-forth is making your head spin, you’re not alone. I’ll spare you the ongoing battles and cut to the victory:
In late June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that state bans against same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. As luck would have it, the ruling, which made it possible for queer couples to be married in any state, and to have those marriages recognized in any state, happened just a few days before the annual San Francisco Pride parade.
At the last minute, Nick and I decided to jump into the parade. Wearing ridiculous foam wigs, because why not?, we held hands as we marched down Market Street. On either side, jubilant, ecstatic paradegoers cheered us on — which reminded me of the elated well-wishers when we were first married, on that February day 11 years earlier.
Nick, who always knows how to play to the crowd, suddenly called out, “We got married…TODAY!,” inciting even bigger whoops and whistles. He turned to face the parade goers on the opposite side of the street and repeated his claim, which received an equally ecstatic response.
Ever the pragmatist, I turned to Nick. "Baby, that's not true," I said.
"They don't know that," he responded, waving to the cheering crowd. "And look how happy it makes them. Don’t you think we all deserve to be happy right now?”
I thought about it for a moment. We'd been through so much together as a couple in recent years. And who knew what the future would bring? Would same-sex marriage be taken away yet again? Despite the 2022 Respect for Marriage Act becoming federal law, I knew all too well that the political pendulum swings and laws change.
I looked into the beaming faces of strangers who were applauding us. Before I knew it, I let out a quiet whoop, followed by a louder one. Then I held Nick's hand up in victory, kissed him on the lips. And before I knew it, the next words that came out of my mouth were:
"We got married...TODAY!"