Steve Saklad, left, and his partner, Paul Hartman, departed San Francisco City Hall, marriage certificate in hand, on Feb. 18, 2004. (Hector Mata/AFP via Getty Images)

Gavin Newsom’s lonely stand on same-sex marriage

On Feb. 12, 2004, Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, directed city clerks to issue the nation’s first marriage licenses to same-sex couples. His stand was a lonely one. A mere four years earlier, Californians had voted by a resounding margin to restrict marriage to one man and one woman. Some in the 36-year-old mayor’s inner circle warned that his political career could be destroyed.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein opposed the move. “Too much, too fast, too soon,” she said at the time. So did Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned of riots in the streets. After George W. Bush was reelected as president later in 2004, some Democrats blamed Newsom for energizing social conservatives.

Mychal Copeland and Kirsti Copeland were wed at San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 13, 2004.
Deborah Coleman/Getty Images

In the years that followed, a flurry of states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. California voters too reaffirmed their opposition in a 2008 ballot initiative. Yet over time, the tide began to shift. In 2012, President Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage. And in 2015, 11 years after Newsom took his rogue stance, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue, declaring same-sex marriage a right nationwide.

Historians may debate whether Newsom’s action did more to hurt or help the cause, but one effect seems certain: the images of thousands of joyful couples expressing their commitment to each other at San Francisco’s City Hall humanized the issue more powerfully than any political speechifying ever could.

According to several polls, a majority of California residents have supported same-sex marriage since about 2011, with the margin growing each year. As for Feinstein, she had a change of heart as well. “History has proven that Gavin Newsom made the right decision, a very bold decision,” she told the L.A. Times in 2018.

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