It was an iconic image: Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, longtime partners and lesbian activists, embracing after being wed in San Francisco City Hall. The first same-sex couple in the country to receive a marriage license was joined by city officials and advocates choked with emotion — but not the man who set their nuptials in motion, Gavin Newsom.
Instead, the then-San Francisco mayor was purposefully absent, sitting in his office and anxiously awaiting word that the ceremony had been performed before a court could interfere.
Newsom’s decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — just a month into his term — was at once slapdash and choreographed. Almost immediately it spun out of his control. What was meant to be a short-lived act of civil disobedience on Feb. 12, 2004, turned into a 29-day saga during which more than 4,000 couples wed, catapulting Newsom into the national fray.
The move drew rebukes from social conservatives and prominent Democrats, including gay rights icons and Newsom’s political mentors. The fallout rippled into the 2004 presidential election and the successful 2008 campaign for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriages in California.
Now, five years since the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, Newsom has made his decision a central selling point in his campaign for governor. In one television ad, he appears with Lyon — whose spouse died in 2008 — reminiscing with a photo album.
Would Newsom as governor take the same risks? “I hope so,” he said in an interview this month. “I’m an idealist ... I embrace that.”
There was no hint that gay marriage would be anywhere on Newsom’s agenda when he ran for mayor in 2003. A county supervisor since 1997, he was seen as the conservative candidate — for San Francisco, at least.
Nationally, the issue was gaining prominence. A Massachusetts court case was laying the groundwork to force that state to legally recognize same-sex marriage. In his 2004 State of the Union, President George W. Bush lambasted “activist judges” for redefining marriage. He threatened to back a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Newsom, who listened to the address from the House of Representatives gallery as a guest of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), has said that was the moment he knew he had to do something.
Soon after he told his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, who is gay, that he intended to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In a municipal quirk — as mayor of San Francisco, both a city and a county — he had authority to do so.
Kawa said his reaction was stunned silence. He and others among Newsom’s senior staff initially had reservations.
“People felt like this could really do him harm,” said Joyce Newstat, then Newsom’s policy director. “This could really hold back his own ability to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish as mayor. It would destroy his political career.”
The hesitation was shared by prominent gay rights activists. Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said her first reaction was fear. In a call with Kawa, she said she appreciated Newsom’s support, but noted Bush’s speech. “We just barely won in Massachusetts. These wins are very fragile,” Kendell said she told the chief of staff. She ultimately came around.
In the course of days, the ceremony was carefully orchestrated. The officiant would be Mabel Teng, the assessor-recorder whose core job was to maintain marriage licenses. Newsom would not be present, to avoid accusations of injecting politics into the proceedings. And the first couple would be Martin and Lyon, who at the time had been together more than 50 years.
Newsom and his allies assumed the courts would shut them down immediately. California voters had passed Proposition 22 in 2000, which said only marriages between a man and a woman would be valid in the state.
But the courts declined to intervene for nearly a month. The image of Lyon and Martin soon gave way to the scene of a line of hopeful couples wrapped around San Francisco City Hall, undeterred by protesters.
Gay rights advocates said the pictures of relatable, ebullient couples instantly humanized the debate over marriage equality.
Newsom eventually officiated a handful of marriages, including Kawa’s and Newstat’s respective ceremonies with their partners.
Opponents of same-sex marriage said Newsom was flagrantly ignoring the will of Californians.
“Mayor Newsom lied when he swore to uphold the law,” Randy Thomasson, who runs Save California, a socially conservative group, said in an interview. “When he raised his right hand, it was almost like he was giving one finger, figuratively, to the people.”
The California Supreme Court halted the weddings on March 11, and the court later nullified those marriages that had been performed. Newsom was chastised for not following the law as written; one justice said he had “created a mess.”
But by then Newsom had become an unlikely face for marriage equality; news stories from the time emphasized that he was straight and married. Kendell said it was precisely because Newsom did not have a reputation as an outspoken liberal that he was able to make his decision.
“This move by Newsom played against type,” she said. “People did not expect this Irish Catholic, straight ... middle-of-the-road moderate to do something so audacious.”
The mayor’s growing national stature as a gay rights warrior irked some who long had worked for the cause.
“I really think he stood on the shoulders of a lot of people who had suffered and died,” said Tom Ammiano, a former supervisor and assemblyman who is gay. “It really wasn't all about him, but he made it all about him.”
Republicans predictably made Newsom their foe, and Democrats cringed at how his move might energize social conservatives to vote against them in the 2004 presidential election.
Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is gay, said Newsom had imperiled the strategy in Massachusetts — to show that allowing same-sex marriage in one state would not be disruptive — before the right was pursued elsewhere.
“It troubled me as an example of the kind of politics that puts the interest of the political actor ahead of the cause,” Frank said.
Newsom now dismisses that criticism as “purely political arguments.”
“If they told me it was the wrong thing to do because it was the wrong thing to do, then I would've listened to that argument,” he said. “They never said that. They said it was too much, too soon, too fast. That's not going to convince me.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a mentor of Newsom’s, said at the time he was partly to blame for John Kerry’s presidential loss. Newsom said the criticism was “heavy,” but he understood the thinking behind it. They repaired their relationship, he said, tongue slightly in cheek, “the old-fashioned way — by never discussing it.”
Now, Feinstein said, she believes “history has proven that Gavin Newsom made the right decision, a very bold decision, which paved the way for marriage equality.”
The California Supreme Court ultimately struck down the state’s gay marriage ban in 2008, prompting a triumphant Newsom to declare that marriage equality would happen “whether you like it or not.” The backers of Proposition 8, which sought to amend the state Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, capitalized on those comments in a campaign ad.
That ad and Proposition 8’s success once again put Newsom on the defensive for harming the cause he had so forcefully backed. The ban set in place by Proposition 8 remained in effect until 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it and, in a separate ruling, found that same-sex couples could marry nationwide.
Newsom said he has no regrets about his decision. But he said he sees the experience now “with a different set of eyes,” with more effort toward “thinking through the intended and the unintended.”