Gay Couples Tie the Knot at S.F. City Hall

Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples tie the knot as same sex-marriage becomes legal in California. San Francisco's City Hall was a popular spot Tuesday.

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Up and down California today, county clerks began the first full day of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Last month's State Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage went into effect late yesterday. And today, hundreds of couples had their first chance to pick up marriage licenses. Some were married on the spot.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports from San Francisco.

RICHARD GONZALES: On the steps of City Hall, it was one big wedding celebration.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONZALES: Rainbow flags were flying, and a gay men's chorus greeted couples lined up to be the first to get their licenses.

(Soundbite of song, "Over the Rainbow")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow...

GONZALES: City staff and volunteers anticipated a crunch, and they required couples to make appointments to get a license. J.C. Thomas and Mark Dresser were originally married four years ago. They were among the estimated 4,000 couples who were wed when Mayor Gavin Newsom first authorized same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Mr. JC THOMAS: Yeah, on February 13th, 2004. So we were married - the first time we thought it was possible and today we're - we've come in for an upgrade and for the real deal.

GONZALES: Those unions were eventually invalidated by the State Supreme Court, who said the mayor had exceeded his authority. But the same court last month struck down the state's ban on gay marriage. And now Dresser and Thomas are back for a new license.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, the wedding will be August 30th. He wants a big wedding so our families, friends, a lot of people were coming out, and it's going to take a while to plan, but we're - we're going to - we wanted to be here today, the first day to get the license, and we have 90 days to have it...

Mr. MARK DRESSER: To solemnize it.

GONZALES: But not everyone today was prepared to wait, and ceremonies were conducted everywhere in City Hall: in corridors, in offices, and in the rotunda.

Mr. AARON PESKIN (San Francisco Board of Supervisors): Do you, Hank, take Jeff to be your lawfully wedded husband?

Mr. HANK DONAT(ph): I do.

GONZALES: Hank Donat and Jeff Helprin(ph) were wed in the chambers of the Board of Supervisors by Chairman Aaron Peskin.

Mr. PESKIN: Do you promise to love and comfort each other, honor and keep each other in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse, and be faithful to each other as long as you both shall live?

Mr. DONALD: I do.

Mr. JEFF HELPRIN: I do.

GONZALES: Still, in the back of the minds of many couples is the looming threat that their marriages could once again face a legal challenge. In November, California voters will face an initiative that would amend the state constitution and ban gay marriage. If it passes, the initiative would supersede the Supreme Court's ruling that made this day possible. City Attorney Dennis Herrera, whose office led the legal battle for same-sex marriage, says he's not worried.

Attorney DENNIS HERRERA (San Francisco, City Attorney): It's our position you can't legislate discrimination. And at the same time I'll note for you that there's no retroactivity provision that's in that ballot initiative. Now, I'm hopeful that we're not going to get to that point and that after we educate the hearts and minds of Californians, that initiative will be defeated. But if it's not, we'll be making our legal arguments. And I'm confident those marriages are going to endure.

GONZALES: City officials are also going to lengths to ensure the integrity of these weddings. Scores of volunteers have been deputized to conduct the ceremonies. One is Bud Ryerson(ph), whose wife works for the city.

Mr. BUD RYERSON (Volunteer): A lot of people are looking at what we're doing here today. And not all of the eyes are friendly. So we have to be very, very careful about how we process all of these applications, how we perform these ceremonies. Every I have to be dotted, every T has to be crossed, because people are going to be checking what we do. They're going to be checking it twice. And if there's anything wrong, if there's any kind of error whatsoever, people are going to be all over it.

GONZALES: No one really knows how many same-sex couples will tie the knot, but officials say that in this city alone, more than 2,000 couples have made appointments to get a marriage license in the next 90 days.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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Octogenarian Gay-Rights Pioneers Wed in California

Many gay couples planned to head to county clerk offices around California on Tuesday to get marriage licenses after the state Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage took effect late Monday afternoon.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officiated one of the first same-sex weddings Monday night. Two elderly lesbians — icons of the gay-rights movement — held a private ceremony at City Hall.

Phyllis Lyon, 83, and Del Martin, 87, became a couple more than half a century ago and went on to start the first national group for lesbians. After marrying in a small ceremony in Newsom's office, the elderly women emerged to an adoring crowd.

Newsom said presiding over the wedding ceremony was a great privilege.

"I think, today, marriage as an institution has been strengthened," he said. "I think, today, marriage has been affirmed."

Four years ago, Newsom challenged the state's same-sex marriage ban and ordered city officials to marry gay couples. He asked Lyon and Martin to go first. The California Supreme Court later ruled that Newsom overstepped his authority. The court then invalidated Lyon and Martin's marriage license, along with 4,000 others.

The same court, after considering the constitutionality of California's same-sex marriage ban, recently ruled that gay men and lesbians do have a constitutional right to marry.

Standing in front of a three-tiered wedding cake, Lyon rested her hands on the back of her wife's wheelchair and remembered when they met.

"When we first got together, we weren't really thinking about getting married," she said. "We were just thinking about getting together."

And with that, the couple cut their wedding cake and left for a quiet reception with friends and family.

Stuart Gaffney and his partner of 21 years, John Lewis, were on hand for the celebration. They planned to be married Tuesday morning at San Francisco City Hall. Their families had flown in from the Midwest, New York and Southern California, including Gaffney's parents, an interracial couple who wed after California legalized interracial marriage six decades ago.

"Well, they're both going to be here with us in City Hall tomorrow, watching us exchange vows. And as we look at each other with love, we're going to see that love reflected back by our parents, right there with us, another generation in our family getting legally married," he said. "It's going to be a beautiful day."

Outside City Hall, hundreds of supporters and some opponents of gay marriage gathered. Those protesting carried signs that said "Re-criminalize Sodomy" and "God Hates Lying Sinners." Born-again Christian Bill Hampsmire traveled from Fremont, Calif., to demonstrate against the nuptials.

"I think God is going to destroy this nation, not just ... California," he said. "Look at all our jobs, our jobs are going overseas. God is judging this nation. It's going to get worse."

Helen Gould of Oakland, Calif., held a sign that read "Married Heteros Support You."

"I have so many friends who are so excited about getting married, and it's really way past time for married heteros to come forward and support their friends," she said.

More than 650 same-sex couples have made appointments to get marriage licenses in San Francisco, and thousands more are expected to marry around the state in the coming weeks. However, it's not clear what will happen to those marriages if voters approve a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would ban gay marriage.

Sarah Varney reports from member station KQED in San Francisco.

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