SAN FRANCISCO With a sense of history and a looming battle at the ballot box, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples in California wed on Tuesday, a steady and decidedly confident celebration that was a marked departure from the mad rush here four years ago.
The marriages began in many cities just after 8 a.m., with the early opening of the state's 58 county clerks' offices. But unlike the scene in 2004, when San Francisco and San Francisco alone broke state law to wed thousands of same-sex couples (the marriages were later nullified by the courts), Tuesday's ceremonies often had a sense of calm and permanence.
"It was so legally ambiguous last time," said Lorie Franks, 43, who came to San Francisco's City Hall, as she had in 2004, to marry her longtime partner, AnneMary Franks. "It was really touching, but we kind of knew it was on thin ice. This time, to me, feels more real."
Much of that security came from the California Supreme Court's May 15 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and the subsequent rejections of challenges to the decision by the same court and the state Court of Appeals, which denied another request for a stay of the marriages on Tuesday.
The Supreme Court's decision became official at 5:01 p.m. on Monday, and Tuesday morning was marked by a burst of mass matrimony, as couples wed in civic buildings, under street-front chuppahs, and in more private locations. California became only the second state to legalize same-sex marriages Massachusetts did so in 2004 but California's law allowing out-of-state residents to marry as well opened the doors here to couples from Kansas, Hawaii, and Texas, as well as from Thailand, France and Italy.
Gay rights activists said Tuesday marked a watershed moment in the maturation of a movement that effectively began with violent riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969.
"This is the beginning of a vision of what it means to live in a nation and a state that says we value one another as equals," said Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
At the same time, with an initiative on the November ballot that would amend the California Constitution to say that only marriages between men and women are "valid or recognized" in the state, some gay advocacy groups were urging couples to keep their celebrations low-key and respectful so as not to provide fodder for their opponents or play into stereotypes.
"Marriage is a serious thing and people should treat it seriously," said Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, a gay rights group. "And the world is watching and needs to know that we are still supportive of the institution of marriage." Kendell seconded that, saying gay men and lesbian couples understood the import of the moment. "There's a time to party, there's a time for celebration, there's a time for flamboyance," she said. "And then there's getting married."
Both Kors and Kendell said that there has not been an organized campaign to tone down weddings, but that the political fight ahead was undeniable and likely to be hard-fought. "There have not been mass e-mails telling people what to wear to the wedding, but when people ask questions we tell people they should get married the way they want to get married but treat it respectfully," said Kors said.
At the same time, opponents of same-sex marriage also seemed to be keeping their distance, with only scattered and outnumbered protests on Monday and Tuesday.
Tony Perkins, the founder of the Family Research Council in Washington, said that his group had not organized any protesters in California.
"We'll let them have their day as they go through this," said Perkins. "Our focus will be on educating voters." Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, said it was unclear whether passage of the ballot initiative would invalidate marriages performed between now and November. For those actually getting married, of course, such election-year concerns were secondary. In West Hollywood, a dozen couples waited overnight, bringing forms marked "party A" and "party B," rather than "bride" and "groom." In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the proceedings were dappled with celebrity that city's ultimate sign of approval when George Takei, the Star Trek actor ("Sulu") got his marriage license with an eye toward marrying his longtime partner in September.
In less cosmopolitan areas, like rural Kern County, where the county clerk has canceled all wedding ceremonies to avoid marrying same-sex couples, newlyweds exchanged vows on a tree-lined patio outside the clerk's office instead. (The clerk, however, is continuing to issue licenses, per state law.)
"We are so happy, we can't stop smiling," said Kathi Gose, 52, who wed Karen Briefer, 45, in Bakersfield after 11 years together. "We want to have the same rights as any other American citizen," Gose said.
In San Francisco, 165 same-sex couples had appointments at San Francisco's City Hall to marry on Tuesday, working their way through an orderly maze of administrative officials handing out licenses. Children, parents, friends and wedding photographers were all on hand for ceremonies, as a string quartet played in the City Hall rotunda and cheers periodically erupted from one of 19 marriage stations arranged throughout the building.
Ariel Owens, 30, and Joseph Barham, 27, stood at "Ceremony Location A" at about 9 a.m. Barham's hands shook as Owens placed a ring on his finger. Moments later, they were pronounced wed, and "spouses for life."
"I don't know if it's a political statement," said Barham, who works in human resources and lives in Richmond, Calif., across the bay. "I'm just marrying the man I love." California tourism officials were hoping for an influx of marriage-minded gay couples. Dr. Melissa Levine, 43, and Terry Levine, 51, traveled from Tucson, Ariz., to Indio, Calif., east of Los Angeles, with their two sons to apply for a marriage license. They later wed in Palm Springs.
"Why did we come? Because it's not legal for us to marry in Arizona," Melissa Levine, a family physician, said. "After 18 years together, we thought it was about time."
Unlike 2004, time seemed less of an issue for prospective newlyweds. San Francisco had deputized about 40 volunteers, mostly city employees, to perform the marriage vows, but by mid-afternoon, most sat idly by. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who set off a stampede of gay and lesbian couples in 2004 by ordering the county clerk to issue same-sex licenses, even took time to grab a coffee. "Four years ago, I barely got out my office," he said.
Newsom said the more sedate and secure mood in City Hall was a result of the court's powerfully worded decision and the fact that the marriages weren't just in San Francisco anymore.
"You don't have the stress, and the uncertainty that drove these marriages four years ago, when you didn't know if the courts were going to annul them tomorrow," he said. "Now you know you have between now and November. At least."