Monday, May 19, 2008

Center Celebrates Same-Sex Marriage Decision


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: "Fairness Wins!!!" banner, State Senator Christine Kehoe, City Councilmember Toni Atkins, Centr board chair Richard Valdez, ACLU activist and staff member Dale Kelly Bankhead, City Attorney Mike Aguirre and a couple potentially altar-bound after the California Supreme Court ruling.

“I’m happy to be a Californian every day, but today is an especially great day to be a Californian!” Thus exulted Delores Jacobs, executive director of the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, opening the community’s celebration of the May 15 California Supreme Court decision ruling the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples unconstitutional.

The Center’s main auditorium was packed with over 500 people — even more than had attended the similar event to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas abolishing sodomy laws five years earlier. “Today I am moved beyond words as I look at the community I love and cherish, and think about what happened today,” Jacobs said. “I know about two-thirds of you, and you made this happen today. This is your decision.”

The event began with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus singing a song called “Marry Us” — though it actually began with Jacobs spending about five minutes trying to quiet down the exuberant crowd so the chorus members could hear their accompanist. The ebullient mood continued as Jacobs spoke, excitedly boasting that “today our Supreme Court, in keeping with its history of standing for civil rights, ruled that denying us marriage is unconstitutional. It affirmed that two people in a committed, loving relationship deserve the dignity and support that come with marriage. I think about some members of our community who never thought that they would see this day, and I see our youth and realize that they live in a state that recognizes their rights.”

California State Senator Christine Kehoe, who in 1993 became the first openly Queer elected official in San Diego, said, “I’m overwhelmed. Today we are witnesses to history. The California Supreme Court affirmed our right to marry in one of the most historic decisions in our history.”

Kehoe then regaled the crowd with the anecdote of how she’d heard about the landmark decision. She was in Sacramento on the Senate floor at 10 a.m., when the California Supreme Court posted the decision on their Web site. Kehoe recalled that she and the other two openly Lesbian members of the State Senate, Sheila Kuehl of Los Angeles and Carole Migden of San Francisco, “scrolled down through the decision looking for the outcome, and it was Sheila who first read and announced to us that the California Supreme Court had affirmed our right to marry.”

As word of the decision spread through the Senate floor, Kehoe said, Democrats reacted excitedly while Republicans greeted the news in stony silence — ironic, given that all but one of the current California Supreme Court justices are Republican appointees, three of them joined the majority opinion and one, Chief Justice Ronald George, wrote it. Kehoe said she saw Justice Joyce Kennard in a hearing room on an unrelated matter and thanked her for the decision — and Kennard replied, “I’m glad to see a friendly face.”

“I talked to Chief Justice George on the phone and told him this decision guarantees and validates our civil rights,” Kehoe said, “He said even the dissenters made their points based on the rule of law.” (Aside from one comment in Justice Marvin Baxter’s dissent that called the majority’s ruling “a piece of legal jujitsu,” the dissenting opinions avoided the slashing, insulting and often contemptuous language U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had used in his dissents from that court’s landmark pro-Queer opinions, Romer v. Evans in 1996 and Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.)

Toni Atkins, Kehoe’s successor on the San Diego City Council, cracked a rare smile as she said, “Today’s decision is already reverberating around the world. California is once again leading the way in ensuring that everyone is treated with respect and every couple will have their dreams honored by their government. I am proud that San Diego played a role in making those dreams come true. I will never forget the courage shown by my colleagues Scott Peters, Jim Madaffer, Ben Hueso and Donna Frye [in endorsing San Diego’s support of the amicus curiae brief filed by California’s largest city in support of the marriage lawsuit], and I want to personally thank not only Scott Peters but also our city attorney, Mike Aguirre.”

That was a major concession on Atkins’ part, since she’s not only endorsing Peters over Aguirre in this year’s city attorney campaign, but in earlier public statements had gone out of her way to downplay Aguirre’s role in the issue. Aguirre himself sat on the stage throughout the entire event but was not given a chance to speak. Peters attended the early part of the event and Jacobs called him out from the audience, but he had to leave before the event ended. A third Democrat running for city attorney, Amy Lepine, was there but did not get a chance to speak and was not called out. Neither Jan Goldsmith nor Brian Maienschein, the Republican candidates in the race, attended — and Maienschein had voted on the City Council against joining the amicus brief.

Atkins then paid tribute to Mayor Jerry Sanders, who’d been expected to veto the City Council’s vote to join the amicus brief but instead signed it. “I’m sure we all remember the Mayor on TV with tears in his eyes as he said that his decency would not allow him to say that certain San Diegans, including members of his own family, were less deserving of recognition of their relationships than he is of his relationship with his wife. … I look forward to the time years from now when we’re all reminiscing and I can say I shared this victory with you.”

“This is a great day to be an American, a Californian and a San Diegan,” said San Diego Human Relations Commission chair and long-time Queer activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez. “This marks the 60th anniversary of the ruling giving African-Americans full marriage equality” — a reference to the California Supreme Court’s 1948 Perez decision, which struck down the state’s 99-year-old ban on interracial marriages and was cited by Chief Justice George as a major precedent in his opinion.

“It has been a long journey to achieve full equality,” Murray-Ramirez said. “We are not there yet, but we have taken a great step forward. We are indeed the civil rights movement of the 21st century. This historic day reminds me and other old-timers of the day in the 1970’s when [then-Governor] Jerry Brown signed the bill legalizing consensual sexual activity.” [Ironically, in the 1970’s Brown also signed a bill “clarifying” California’s marriage laws by providing that marriage is between one man and one woman — one of the laws, along with the 2000 initiative Proposition 22, the California Supreme Court struck down in its May 15 ruling.]

Richard Valdez, chair of the Center’s board, said, “Some decisions are losses. Some are partial wins. This was a complete victory. It was a decision that recognizes the value of our relationships and the value of us as human beings. Those things are the result of a lot of work, including the state legislature passing bills that supported marriage equality, and Toni Atkins and her colleagues going forward with the amicus brief. It’s about you being visible.”

Among the topics Valdez discussed was the Court’s acknowledgment that California’s option allowing Gay and Lesbian couples to register as “domestic partners” is functionally equivalent to marriage, but that setting up a separate procedure for legal recognition of same-sex relationships still discriminates against Queer individuals and couples. Answering the often-asked question why Queer people feel they need the word “marriage,” Valdez said, “We need the word because there’s a Constitutional right to marry. The Supreme Court said that what we want is just the same as what opposite-sex couples have: a legally recognized relationship with the individual with whom you want to share your life.”

Valdez also praised the court for recognizing Queer people as a “suspect classification” and discrimination based on sexual orientation as deserving “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of civil-rights protection the legal system offers. Echoing Chief Justice George’s language in the opinion, Valdez said, “Using the term ‘marriage’ for same-sex couples will not deprive opposite-sex couples of any rights. They ruled Proposition 22 is unconstitutional, and the Appellate Court must tell each and every county in California to provide same-sex couples with marriage licenses so they can get married. It takes 30 days for the decision to become final, and hopefully within 45 days or so we can start getting married.”

The final speaker, Dale Kelly Bankhead of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — who was a key player in building local support for marriage equality and lobbying the City Council to join the amicus brief — was there to warn the people present that their newly won freedom to marry might be taken away again this November. Opponents of marriage equality circulated petitions to put a measure on the November 4 ballot to insert the language of 2000’s Proposition 22 in the California Constitution — which would automatically reverse the May 15 ruling and eliminate any chance of marriage rights for same-sex couples in California.

“The opposition is already at work trying to take away what we won today,” Kelly Bankhead warned. “They spent millions to get the anti-marriage initiative on the ballot, and will spend millions more to nullify the rights we won today. But we won’t let that happen. We must make more phone calls, knock on more doors, and raise more money than ever before. We will need at least $15 million to combat the hate and lies they will put out. You have to ask, ‘How much would I be willing to spend to protect my right to marry?,’ add a little more and make a check out to the campaign.”

After Kelly Bankhead’s presentation, Jacobs declared that the rest of the event would be a party, and dance music blasted over the Center’s giant speakers and filled the hall for the celebration. The first song their D.J. played? Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”