Ten Years Later, Newsom Reflects on ’04 Marriages

by Matthew S. Bajko
Saturday Feb 1, 2014

Amidst the backdrop of city officials marrying same-sex couples in defiance of state law back in February 2004, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recalled trying to address the media when a little girl approached to voice her appreciation.

"This precious little girl," recalled Newsom, walked over to him and said, " 'Thank you for giving me two mommies.' "

Describing the exchange a decade later still brings him to tears. He likened trying to then conduct the impromptu news conference to riding a bucking bull.

"I lasted 23 seconds and just broke down," said Newsom. "I literally walked back into the office. It's just beautiful, right?"

Meeting with the Bay Area Reporter 's editorial board to reflect on the 10th anniversary of his mayoralty's "Winter of Love," when San Francisco officials wed 4,037 couples over the course of four weeks in February and March, Newsom said his biggest regret was not being able to directly experience the love and joy taking place under City Hall's historic rotunda.

He performed only three weddings himself, one being that of his chief of staff Steve Kawa and his husband, Dan Henkle. Because of the security risks and media interest, Newsom said, "I couldn't walk around. I couldn't do the weddings out there."

Several times during the first few days, when hundreds of couples were lined up around the block waiting to get into City Hall, Newsom had his driver park his official vehicle with blacked out windows across the street so he could privately watch what was taking place.

"I wish I was there every day and heard all these stories," said Newsom, now the state's lieutenant governor.

He suggested the city would likely have married an additional 1,000 couples if it were not for a number of death threats and bomb threats city officials received. To protect the safety of the couples, city staffers, and volunteer wedding officiants, a reservation system was instituted in order to eliminate the hours-long lines that had formed.

"We had serious threats. We had to shut down the exits to City Hall," said Newsom.

Returning that year from witnessing former President George W. Bush call for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in his State of the Union speech, an irate Newsom conferred with several of his LGBT staffers and Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, on how best to respond.

"What do we do, a press release? Do we decry a constitutional amendment?" he recalled asking.

He did issue a statement in which he called the proposal "a terrible idea" and urged Bush to reconsider his position.

At the same time LGBT activists were urging Newsom to order the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Barring that, some called for Newsom to only allow heterosexual couples to become domestic partners rather than marry, as the B.A.R. reported in its February 5 issue that year, or either defund the clerk's office or move it outside county lines.
In the midst of the "Winter of Love" Mayor Gavin Newsom, left, was presented with several giant thank you cards during a town hall meeting in Noe Valley on February 28, 2004.(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

The next week, in a letter dated February 10, 2004, Newsom asked then-County Clerk Nancy Alfaro to determine "the necessary changes" needed to marriage licenses so they could be provided "on a non-discriminatory basis."

Newsom said this week that he sent the letter thinking it would be awhile before he received a response. He hadn't expected a reply to come the next day from Mabel Teng, then the city's assessor-recorder whose office oversees the registering of marriage licenses, with a way to alter the forms to accommodate same-gender couples.

"She was so gung ho. We thought this would buy us some time," he said. "The buzz got out there; that is why big leaders in the community called me and I said don't worry we are not going to do anything right away."

With marriage equality activists planning to demand marriage licenses from the county clerk on Thursday, February 12, as part of a yearly protest timed to Valentine's Day, it was thought they would be turned away again, but this time, told to return the following week.

Instead, what ended up transpiring not only took the activists by surprise but the entire country. Largely in secret, with just a reporter and photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle in the room, Teng married lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in her City Hall office that morning. A male couple was then privately wed.

As word began to spread, Teng married two more female couples, which a reporter from the B.A.R. was invited to witness. By this time, the marriage equality activists had arrived at City Hall to learn that they could marry.

With the courts closed due to a scheduled holiday, there was no ability for opponents to secure an injunction to stop the weddings. Hundreds of couples descended on City Hall and were able to exchange vows.

With no court action taken Friday, and city officials deciding to keep City Hall open all weekend to accommodate those wanting to wed, couples from across the state and country traveled to San Francisco to exchange vows. It wouldn't be until March 11 that year that the state Supreme Court would halt the weddings, and then later in August, annul the marriages that had taken place.

The events of that winter led to City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office filing its successful state lawsuit winning marriage rights for same-sex couples in the spring of 2008, the passage of a constitutional amendment overturning that decision in November that year, and the federal litigation that opened the door again to same-sex marriages in the Golden State last June.

Newsom acknowledged this week that the initial thinking was the city would marry Lyon and Martin as the basis for a legal challenge to California's anti-gay marriage statutes.

"Everything we were doing was oriented around that lawsuit," said Newsom.

Despite talk about recalling him from office, Newsom said that wasn't his biggest concern.

"People forget that. There were legitimate recall discussions. It never materialized," he said. "I was more worried about getting arrested."

Asked what she recalls most about those early weeks of 2004, Kendell told the B.A.R. "how what Newsom did felt so groundbreaking, risky and cutting edge, in the most exciting way possible." His actions, she added, "helped to usher in the most accelerated momentum imaginable and now opposition to marriage equality is regarded as retrograde and shameful."

With a number of new lawsuits challenging other states' anti-gay marriage laws headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court, Newsom believes the court will be forced to issue a ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Such a development can't come soon enough, he added.

"There are so many other things that need to be addressed in the LGBTQ community," said Newsom, pointing to such issues as employment protections and discrimination transgender people face. "There is so much work to be done, that is why it is so important to get this done."

To mark the 10th anniversary of the 2004 marriages, Newsom has created a board on the website Pinterest where couples who married then can share their wedding photos. To post a photo go to and use the hashtag #WinterOfLove

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