Wedding interruptus

A writer’s race to San Francisco runs into a roadblock of uncertainty

Illustration By Dave Calver

My partner and I didn’t find out that San Francisco County had begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until we sat down to dinner on February 12 and turned on the news. We expected the anti- marriage people to get an injunction and stop it quickly, after a handful of weddings.

But Friday morning, the marriage licenses still were being issued, ceremonies still performed, and marriages still recorded, and the question became: “Can we go?” Grasping the Web site info from the San Francisco county clerk’s office, and a couple of MapQuest printouts, we headed for the car.

Then we thought to call our lawyer.

Getting married isn’t just new for gay people; it also can have unpredictable consequences. Though the sky won’t fall, and it won’t be a slippery slope to cultural ruin—see Canada, where they’re still being happily Canadian—it opens up some “interesting legal questions,” to use our attorney’s phrase. One of those is the possibility that our marriage could be ruled invalid at some point down the road, a prospect most people don’t have to contend with unless they’ve requested it, à la Britney Spears.

One news report said that marriage would invalidate domestic partnerships. We checked the secretary of state’s Web site. It says that domestic partnerships are terminated “when one of the domestic partners marries,” but it doesn’t say what happens when the domestic partners marry each other. Because my health insurance, provided through my partner’s employer, is both necessary and dependent upon our valid domestic partnership, we decided to ask our lawyer if there was any way getting married in San Francisco could screw things up.

And she didn’t think so but couldn’t make any guarantees. The best advice she could offer, because we can’t afford to risk losing health benefits, was to request an opinion from the benefits office and wait to see what the courts decide.

So, we’re waiting, along with the rest of the country, to see what the judges will make of San Francisco County’s decision to come down on the side of history, which always has favored the expansion of liberty.

Meanwhile, the festive atmosphere in the Bay Area is a reminder of just how important the issue is, and it’s resurrected every conceivable argument about same-sex marriage. A recent poll reported on News10 said that roughly 62 percent of Californians were opposed to recognizing same-sex marriages.

Of course, in 1958, a Gallup Poll indicated that 96 percent of Americans were opposed to interracial marriages. By then, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the two women who were the first to marry earlier this month, had been together five years already. They’ve been together since Ike was in the White House and its current occupant was learning to read, and the unwillingness of some people to validate their marriage and give them whatever support our society can offer is nothing short of appalling.

What these polls really tell us is that opinions change, and they generally change after people have stopped being afraid of whatever current bogeyman is being touted.

For example, opponents of women’s suffrage in the United States used a grab bag of arguments that covered all sorts of ground: Women shouldn’t vote because they weren’t physically designed to do so (too weak and emotional); because women were biblically commanded to be in submission to their husbands, women voting was immoral; and including women in political matters would lead to the breakdown of the family. Here we are, going on 80 years later, and women vote and even run for office. The 19th Amendment didn’t put us on a slippery slope to granting the franchise to animals and trees, though our environmental policy might be better if we had.

In short, everything the anti-suffrage crowd feared failed to happen.

I use the suffrage example because same-sex marriage is, quite simply, a matter of civil rights. Adult citizens in this country have the right to participate in the political process, at least they have for the last century, because the group of people who were considered eligible for the franchise expanded to include white women and people of color. It’s made us a better, stronger nation. And expanding the group of people who are allowed to enter into civil marriage will do the same thing: make for more stable, stronger families, which most people would agree is a good thing for our society.

But instead, we have fear-mongering, and I truly believe that the anti-marriage folks are afraid of same-sex marriage—but not for the reasons they state publicly. It is entirely possible that the reason some on the right feel they must oppose civil marriage for same-sex couples so vigorously is that once the public recognizes that there’s absolutely nothing to fear from gay and lesbian families, the right’s organizations will lose what long has been a guaranteed source of income.

For ultraconservatives, the last 25 years have provided a really quick way to lay their hands on big piles of cash. Just send out a direct-mail piece—or these days, an e-mail—claiming that those nasty gay people want to get married and destroy the world and that (insert so-called “family” organization’s name here)needs donations to stop the apocalypse. The money rolls in. It’s already started—an e-mail alert from the Christian Coalition last week asked for prayers and greenbacks—credit cards welcome—and it’s not alone. Being afraid of nothing much seems to pay off pretty well for the anti-marriage crowd. But if anyone gets rich from gay weddings, it really ought to be the caterers.

The only arguments against same-sex marriage that have any weight at all are based on religious beliefs. Thank goodness for the Constitution, which has taken care of that little problem by keeping civil matters separate from religious matters. No religious institution ought to be forced to perform a marriage that’s in violation of its doctrine. Ask any divorced Catholic who remarried in front of a judge instead of a priest. It’s a simple matter to keep church and state separate where marriage is concerned.

I’ll make it as simple as possible. I promise never to darken the doorstep of any church that doesn’t want me, and, if your religion doesn’t approve of my marriage, you won’t be invited to our wedding. Such a compromise—called respect—is something I’m ready for any time now.