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Ruth Rosen: We're Already Married

[Ms. Rosen is Professor Emerita of History, U.C. Davis, and Visiting Professor of History, U.C. Berkeley.]

Four years ago, when Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses for same sex marriages, I was still a political columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. I rushed down to City Hall to bear witness to the historic events of those days. At the time, I thought Gavin Newsom would be remembered for his bold and courageous initiative. Some said to me, "But it's not a good time." I responded, "It's never a good time to deny others the rights you already have."

Already, there are those who are preparing for a referendum for the November ballot that would ban same sex marriages in the California Constitution. But before we lose the joyous celebration of an expanded democracy, I'd like to recall what happened four years ago. Here, from 2004, is what I witnessed--one of the most joyous historic events in my life.


WHO ARE all the gay and lesbian couples streaming into San Francisco's City Hall to get married? What hopes and dreams did they bring to these sudden and unexpected marriage ceremonies?

Last Friday, I talked with some of the these couples who, in defiance of state law, married in San Francisco. Even though their marriage licenses may be judged invalid by the courts, they came because they wanted to participate in this historic event and to have, even temporarily, the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

Some of the women, dressed in stunning white gowns, juggled babies and bouquets. Some of the men, dressed in elegant tuxedos, sported a carnation in their lapels and cradled babies, while friends held their paperwork. One man pushed his partner in a wheelchair, a broad smile spreading across his face.

Beaming faces spread an intoxicating sense of joy throughout the building. As couples looked into each other's eyes, arms wrapped around each other, their friends took snapshots and the national media documented the occasion for the evening news. I chatted with one veteran cameraman who was overwhelmed by the scene and, much to his surprise, found himself blinking back tears.

Jennifer Shifflet, 31, and Kati Keyser, 29, both graduate students, live in Berkeley and have been together for eight years. The day before, Jennifer had telephoned Kati at work and said, "Let's do it tomorrow; it's such a historic event." Neither one had a chance to tell their parents of their plan.

But their parents wouldn't be surprised. With pride, they showed me pictures of the family members and friends who gathered around them at their commitment ceremony. During that event, they had expressed their gratitude to all the earlier activists who had struggled for gay rights. Kati said they had come "to support this historic event."

What do they imagine might change, now that they are married? "I won't have to call her my partner or girlfriend at a doctor's office or a hospital," said Jennifer. "She's now my spouse."

"We want to have children,'' said Kati. "Someday I can call a child-care center or a school and say that my spouse will be picking up our child. We'll be viewed as a valid family."

"It's an honor to be part of this. I'm thrilled," said Jennifer. "But the truth is, we had already made this commitment and felt married."

Randa Johnson and Adreanna Riles, both social workers in their late 30s, jointly own a house in Felton. They also felt that they had already married. Still, the day before they traveled to the steps of San Francisco's City Hall, they had asked each other: "Should we wait? No! We've got to be a part of it."

They too, have been together for eight years, but, as Adreanna put it, "I never imagined that we'd be able to marry in my lifetime." Draped in the white dresses they had worn at their commitment ceremony four years ago, they both felt they were "renewing" vows.

Why, then did they want to wed? Aside from the possibility of getting health and retirement benefits reserved for spouses, they said that their religious friends would regard their relationship as more legitimate now that they are married. They also want to have children and feel that they and their children will be viewed as a more legitimate family by teachers and others in their community.

Glowing with happiness, the two women looked like -- and spoke like -- any other married couple who deeply love and respect each other.

There may have been couples who had just met, were swept up in the heady passion of a new romance, and decided to rush down to City Hall to get married.

But that's not what I saw. I met couples who already had made a spiritual commitment to each other and whose love had been tested by time and travail. For them, a marriage license meant greater social legitimacy and fewer logical and legal hassles.

That's how Andy Anderson, 42, and Marcus Wonacott, 49, viewed it. Longtime residents of San Francisco, the men had already shared 16 years of their lives. They, too, already felt they had wed.

As they approached the steps to City Hall, a friend greeted them and pinned roses on their suit jackets. Their faces beamed as they held hands. "We're really very grateful to Mayor Gavin Newsom," said Andy. This really makes a statement. He deserves so much credit for being so bold and daring."

"It a historic milestone," said Marcus. "We're part of history and we know it."

Then, with joyful smiles, they eagerly entered City Hall to renew vows they had made eight years ago, at their commitment ceremony.