san francisco marriage equality
Photos: Bob Ristelhueber.
Features, Opinion

San Francisco and the long fight for US marriage equality

San Francisco celebrates Pride Month in June, marking the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. 

In June 2013, the excitement and anticipation was off the charts as the entire state of California anxiously awaited a decision by the US Supreme Court on marriage equality.

The case had originated in 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples, in defiance of state law. 

Queer couples from all over California (and even other states) flocked to City Hall to marry. 

Wedding ceremonies took place before jubilant and tearful crowds all over the city. 

Marriages voided

The joy didn’t last long, as opponents of marriage equality quickly went to court and won an order stopping San Francisco from issuing the licences.

When a state court later ruled that Mayor Newsom had exceeded his authority, it voided all the marriages that had taken place. 

Hundreds of couples were horrified to learn that their marriages were now null and void.

It turned out, however, that this was only the first battle in a long struggle. 

An appeal to the California Supreme Court eventually reversed the lower court ruling, determining that discrimination against same-sex couple violated the state’s constitution. 

But once again, opponents managed to defeat marriage equality, this time by a popular referendum called Proposition 8

In a heartbreaking loss on election day in 2008, 52% of the state’s voters overturned the court’s ruling and reinstated the ban on same-sex marriage in California.

Frustrated by these defeats, supporters of marriage equality turned to the federal courts. 

A legal battle

Within months of the election, two couples filed a lawsuit claiming that Proposition 8 violated the US Constitution. 

A long trial followed, and on 4 August 2010, District Court Judge Vaughn Walker announced his ruling in favour of the plaintiffs, overturning Proposition 8 based on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. 

Walker concluded that California had no rational basis or vested interest in denying marriage licences to same-sex couples.

The fight wasn’t quite over, though. 

Judge Walker’s decision was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which would have the final say on Proposition 8. 

The ruling was scheduled to be announced on 26 June 2013 – the eve of the 44th anniversary of Stonewall. 

All over California, LGBTQ people and their supporters held their collective breath.

The long-awaited news at last arrived from Washington: the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold Judge Walker’s ruling. 

Proposition 8 was finally dead, and marriage equality was law in California.

Wild jubilation

I can’t describe the joy that erupted all over the state. 

I live a short walk from San Francisco’s City Hall, where this long battle had begun in 2004, and I immediately went there to watch the reaction. 

The normally staid Beaux-Arts Building was the scene of wild jubilation as couples lined up for their marriage licences, cheered on by family and friends. 

For the next several days, a squad of marriage commissioners volunteered to perform ceremonies on the spot, and spontaneous weddings took place in the building’s hallways and landings, serenaded by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. 

I began madly snapping these photos and taking videos. 

All around me were tearful ceremonies. 

It was one of the greatest weeks in LGBTQ history, and I was so happy to have been there.

Two years later, the US Supreme Court finally declared that marriage equality was the law of the land throughout the United States.

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