Warm Hearts, Cold Feet in WeHo

The mayor of West Hollywood met me at a Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard after working on his chest, biceps and triceps. His boyfriend doesn't want him to get fat.

"We have a vanity ordinance," Mayor Jeffrey Prang joked. "Everyone has to join a gym."

Speaking of boyfriends, I asked Prang if he had to fight an urge to grab his beau, Ray, and run up to San Francisco this Valentine's Day weekend to tie the knot. San Francisco has turned into a temporary Vegas, with drive-through same-sex marriages at City Hall.

No, he said. The relationship is serious, but they've only been together eight months, and Prang isn't ready to take that step.

But he was so thrilled by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's gambit, which challenges both California law and Proposition 22, Prang dropped him a line of congratulations and support.

"If we could do it here, we'd be all over it," Prang told me as male couples strolled by, just east of the portion of the boulevard known as Boys' Town. He said only a county can issue licenses, and Newsom got away with it because San Francisco is both a city and county.

Whether the marriages will stand up is another matter, because strait-laced foes have already fired off challenges. But nothing could be more pleasing to the City by the Bay. San Francisco, born of an evil seed, exists for the sole purpose of poking the rest of America's eyes out.

Newsom, who is married to a woman, said he was ticked off by President Bush's State of the Union speech, in which Bush turned thumbs down to same-sex marriage. With presidential wannabe John Kerry's home state of Massachusetts having granted marriage benefits to gays, the fires are now burning in an election year.

Whether he ever gets married or not, Prang said, he wants to have the option.

Why? I asked. If you love somebody, you love them. Does the piece of paper really add anything to it?

"I know some people who don't want marriage because it's a heterosexual thing," Prang said. But he doesn't look at it that way.

"It's a public acknowledgment of a relationship -- of love between gays and lesbians -- and that has meaning and value to me." But the real possibility of marriage introduces new pressures on gay relationships, he admitted. What if one partner is ready, and the other has cold feet?

"I own a condo," Prang said, "and if the relationship didn't work out, I'd have to give up a piece of it." Hey, welcome to our world.

Prang headed east on foot, thinking he might buy a gold bracelet for Ray as a Valentine's Day gift. I headed west into Boys' Town, working my way down to the Abbey, one of the most popular gay hangouts in Southern California.

Everyone I talked to thought San Francisco was blazing a path gays could be proud of, but not everyone was ready to say "I do." Neal sat at the bar with a cranberry cocktail and shifted uneasily at the thought of marriage.

"I've never had a relationship last longer than a month," he said.

Maybe he was commitment-phobic, I said.

Neal thought about this as if he'd never considered it, then looked at me and said: "You're better than my psychiatrist, and I'm paying him $400 a month." Neal's cocktail, it turned out, was pure juice. His friend Robert was drinking the same, and he wasn't ready to take the plunge either.

"Maybe I need to find some guys with alcohol in their tank," I said.

"That's what I need too," Robert said.

If so, he should have gone up the street to the Gold Coast, where nobody was drinking virgin cocktails.

"Marriage?" said one of the bartenders. "I can't even find a date." The other bartender said he was grateful this marriage thing didn't start 20 years ago.

"I'd have had 10 alimonies by now."

The guy next to me said he was a Jehovah's Witness. It was the only time in my life I wished Pat Robertson was present. I've been lots of places and seen lots of things, but I think this was the first black Jehovah's Witness I've seen in a gay bar. If Neal was paying $400 a month for therapy, what must this guy's tab run?

"I can love my partner, but I cannot fathom marriage," he said. Not in a church, anyway, with two guys walking down the aisle.

But a civil ceremony in city hall? Yes, he said, he could go for that.

The opposition to gay marriage is mostly religious, said an elderly man in a camel's-hair sport coat.

"My relationship with God is between me and God," he said. "It's nobody's business." I ordered a round of drinks and he said, "We're all the same as you, except that what we do in the bedroom is a little different." It's probably more than a little different, but so what? It's not as if heterosexuals have such a great record when it comes to marriage and domestic bliss.

A man named Ricky sat next to me and said he'd love to be able to get married. He and his mate adopted a little girl at birth. She's 10 now, and he'd like to make the union "official" in the eyes of the law.

Ricky said he and his partner have been together 17 years, but he has a straight brother who still frowns on their life.

"He's been married four times," Ricky said.

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.

Santa Paula can expect partly cloudy skies this weekend with lows in the 40s and highs in the 60s today and the 70s Monday.

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