Sunday, February 22, 2004

Maybe it's the light -- a view from San Francisco

To hear Governor Schwarzenegger and other voices of the far right
describe the matter, California seems threatened by a total breakdown
of civil order -- a wave of lawlessness comparable to people blandishing
assault rifles in public or openly selling hard drugs to school children
on every street corner. Clearly, the marriage riot in San Francisco has
got to stop! It presents a peril to world civilization more grave than al-Qaeda
and suicide bombers. Call in the National Guard -- immediately!

For a more sane, thoughtful view of the matter, check out Gray Brechin's
"Of Course It Started in San Francisco" from the Washington Post. As Brechin describes
his stroll past City Hall last week:

"As it has been since Feb. 12, when Mayor Gavin Newsom directed the city
to begin issuing the controversial marriage licenses, the building has long
been a site of resistance as well as of unity. In 1960, police turned fire
hoses on protesters against the House Un-American Activities Committee,
forcing them down the marble stairs of the place where Marilyn Monroe and
Joe DiMaggio were married in 1954. On the night of May 21, 1979, thousands
of gays converged on City Hall to torch police cars and attack the building,
enraged by a jury verdict that wrist-slapped Dan White, an ex-member of the
Board of Supervisors, for gunning down gay supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor
George Moscone in their offices. The verdict said to the rioters that a clean-cut
family man was almost within his rights to execute a gay man, along with Milk's
liberal friend and supporter.

The mood was very different last Sunday when my partner of 11 years and I
left the Asian Art Museum that faces City Hall across Civic Center Plaza . We could
hear the commotion across the plaza, so we walked toward it, and unwittingly into history.

We had thought that Mayor Newsom's dramatic decision to issue same-sex
marriage certificates was a stunt, and that we didn't really care. Sanctity,
after all, is not a description that either of us would apply to our own parents'
marriages, and we were not about to splurge on rings in order to repeat their mistakes.

But our convictions dissolved as we watched ecstatic couples emerge from
City Hall and descend the granite steps to the cheers, tears and applause of
gays and straights alike, as well as to the affirmative honks of cars passing
on Polk Street, and to the appreciation of those people waiting in a line that
stretched around the block for their turn at legal recognition, many with their
children. Marriages were taking place throughout a City Hall kept open during
the long weekend for just that purpose, and everyone present was aware of
being party to something momentous. We knew that in the present political
climate beyond the Bay Area, Newsom's seeming defiance of state law, and
that of the thousands of couples who have filed through the building, may have
been foolish and even perilous. President Bush and Karl Rove could whip and
ride the divisive issue to another term. But events can create their own unexpected
consequences, just as the televised spectacle of citizens flushed down the stairs
with fire houses 44 years ago helped bring down the HUAC.

The infectious joy at City Hall made the risk of defiance worthwhile, because what
happened there went far beyond an out-of-step city that is almost an island
in more ways than one. It was worthy of a nation that, every July 4, celebrates
those who seek freedom more than security."


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