A Little Valentine: San Francisco, 2004

This is a little valentine for my wife, Martha Shelley—a memory of the third time we got married. Looking for something else, I found an article I wrote back then for a magazine, and decided to rewrite it and post it here for Martha to see. Martha—remember this day?

I heard about the San Francisco same-sex marriages on a Thursday afternoon, two days before Valentine’s Day in 2004. Martha and I were both working at home. An astonished yelp came from her office, in the room next to mine: “C’mere! You gotta see this!” She was looking at the photo everybody would see again and again for the next few days: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon holding hands while prominent lesbian activist Kate Kendell wept behind them.

Del and Phyl: lesbians who had been a couple for 51 years, and brave pioneers, as my Martha was, of gay liberation. They had just been married by Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, in a completely unexpected act of defiance to the state and federal laws that denied marriage to same-sex couples. The city went on to issue licenses to 117 other same-sex couples before the offices closed for the day. Right-wing organizations were suing to stop them, but in the meantime the mayor intended to continue the marriages on Friday.

“So should we go?” Martha asked.

Martha and I had had our first, legally unsanctioned wedding years before, in Tilden Park. We had become domestic partners in California as soon as that was an option. When marriage became legal in Canada, we went to Vancouver BC and got married by a marriage commissioner in Stanley Park, though that meant nothing, legally, in the United States. We were both busy with work, that Friday in 2004, and it was raining, and there would be long lines, but we had assumed all along that we would never see legal marriage in our lifetimes. Of course we would go. 

Martha opened one of the heavy, ornate doors of City Hall, and the noise hit us like a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. We crossed the lobby and had our first glimpse of that long, long rope of excited couples that tied the chaos of this day together. We walked back along the line. Pairs of middle-aged women like us shouted excitedly into their phones. “Guess what, sweetheart,” one of them was yelling as we passed her. Young men in tuxedos with roses on the lapel swapped stories with gym-toned 30-something women in suits. Children ran and shrieked. Hundreds of voices bounced and echoed off the marble walls.

We threaded our way back, and back, and back along the line, in and out of cold hallways, around the rotunda under City Hall’s famous gold-trimmed dome. We passed two bearded men, each carrying an infant in a pouch. We passed a lot of strollers. People were eating sandwiches or holding paper cups of coffee. Some people had brought folding chairs to sit on. Eventually we got in line. Ahead of us was a pair of rosy-faced fat young women, both beautiful in white satin wedding dresses. “Mom?” one of them said into her phone, “Guess what?” Martha and I had discussed dressing up, but in the end we had focused on the probability of waiting in long lines on a cold wet day, so we just wore warm, casual clothes and raingear.

People who were at City Hall on other business had to cut through the line to get in and out. One woman wearing a red suit and carrying a briefcase crossed the line right in front of us. She stopped, turned, and stood looking at us all. She had tears in her eyes. She shouted, “Congratulations, all of you!” and went on her way. I left Martha in line and went out to the lobby to find relative quiet so I could call my sister. “Guess what?” I said.

The line crept forward, a few feet every ten minutes. The hallway we were slowly traversing was dimly lit and rich with marble and polished bronze. Every few minutes we heard an enormous cheer from the direction of the rotunda. Eventually, as we came around to the front again, we saw that several weddings were taking place at once, up and down those majestic marble stairs. Each time a wedding concluded, everyone in line would whoop and cheer as if it were the only one. Reporters and video cameras bustled in and out.

The line inched onward. We left the noisy rotunda, went down some stairs, and snaked around the labyrinth of corridors in City Hall’s basement. A clerk came through and handed each couple a ticket with a number. “Hold onto this,” he said. “If you don’t have it, you don’t get your license.” Word came down the line that a judge had refused to stop the marriages! He said no irreparable harm was being done, so for now it would continue. This was Friday afternoon. Then there would be the weekend, then Monday was the President’s day holiday, and then another hearing was scheduled for Tuesday morning. At that hearing, we all knew, the marriages would probably be stopped. Adding it all up—obviously there wouldn’t be time. Martha and I would not be getting married, not this year, not in San Francisco. Still, we didn’t consider giving up and going home.

At closing time, we heard that the County Clerk’s office had decided to stay open an extra hour. With luck, we might just get the license today. Two clerks came along checking and initialing each couple’s application. Our spot in the long line slowly made its way back up the basement stairs and emerged into the North Light Court with its immense skylight made of hundreds of small panes of glass. At the doorway, another pair of clerks checked everyone’s papers again. We felt as if we were crossing borders in a war zone.

In the gallery outside the North Light Court, a pair of beaming gray-haired men came strutting back along the line, one of them waving a piece of paper over his head—their new marriage license. The whole line erupted in cheers. Each couple that passed us, returning from the County Clerk’s office license in hand, was applauded by the rest of us still in line. A group of eight or ten Japanese men with cameras passed through the line, looking very puzzled. The word came along that the city had decided to open the offices all weekend, to perform as many marriages as possible before the hearing.

We turned a corner. Finally, after all those hours in line, we could see the County Clerk’s office at the end of the hall. Once we got there, I expected the people staffing the counters to be harried and crabby, but they seemed almost as thrilled as we were. We learned afterward that all of these clerks behind makeshift desks, and all the ones who had checked our documents, and the extra guards on duty at the doors, and the dozens of officials performing marriages all over City Hall that day, were volunteers—city employees who had chosen to be there to participate in the city’s enormous act of civil disobedience.

As we passed back along the line, waving our license, the waiting couples clapped and whistled and cheered.

On the second floor, where the weddings were being performed, we emerged from the elevator into more noise and high spirits. There was a line up here, too. We could see four weddings taking place below us on the grand marble staircase, three at the top of the stairs, and one in every alcove of the gallery around the rotunda. As each wedding concluded, whoever was officiating would come to the head of the line and take the next couple. Some of the officiants wore judges’ robes, some were in business suits, and some were dressed in whatever they’d been wearing on their day off when they got the news.

We arrived at the head of the line. An elderly Chinese man in a long black robe came and led us to an alcove overlooking the stairs. He leaned toward us so we could hear him in the pandemonium. “I am Marriage Commissioner Richard Ow,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years.” He smiled a little V-shaped smile. “This is a wonderful day.”

Martha and Sylvia--a little valentine
Martha and Sylvia – detail of a photo by Steven Dansky

We said “I do.” Commissioner Ow pronounced us each “husband and wife, spouse for life” to the other, and signed our license. We shook his hand and stepped aside for the next wedding. We were married.

Back downstairs, we stood in another long line for the Recorder’s office, where several counters and folding tables had been converted to temporary marriage registration stations. A haggard clerk came in and announced to the room, “They’re going to keep it going through Monday.” It was now hours after closing time and he sounded desperate rather than excited. The volunteer clerks behind the tables looked as though they’d been hit with a board. They kept working, heads down. Finally, one of them placed in our hands a pink and blue marriage certificate stamped with the Great Seal of the State of California.

On our way out of City Hall we saw that the lines were still twining up and down the corridors and weddings were still happening on the grand staircase. We heard later that City Hall didn’t close that night until all the people with numbered tickets had been married, and that, by Monday, over 1,000 same-sex couples had been married. Outside, the rain had stopped and the sky was dark, dark blue. For once—finally—for however long it lasted in San Francisco, our marriage was as real, as solid, as serious, as substantial as anyone else’s. And we had the paper to prove it.

Holding hands on the train home, we couldn’t help telling the two nice suburban moms in the seats across from us that we had just gotten married, at City Hall. We unrolled our stamped, signed, pink and blue certificate and showed it to them. “Awwwww,” they said, smiling. “That’s so sweet.” “So sweet.”

All of those marriages were annulled six months later.

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5 Responses to A Little Valentine: San Francisco, 2004

  1. Martha February 14, 2019 at 8:14 pm #

    I love you more and more each year. And you are such a terrific writer–it never ceases to astonish me, how good you are.

  2. Kerry February 15, 2019 at 1:43 am #

    There could not be a sweeter, more touching and lovely valentine.

    • Sylvia Allen February 15, 2019 at 7:40 pm #

      Aww, nice. Thank you, Kerry.

  3. Mary Ziemer -McGinn February 16, 2019 at 10:56 am #

    I was there, marrying my partner of 10 years. We were the 500th couple. I was so hard for us when we got the notice that the state refused to endorse and file our certificate of marriage, then to see all of the DOMA supporter signs n the yards of our neighbors who had known us for years. It was a hard fight for many years and I sincerely hope we don’t go backwards and make America great like the good old days. Happy V-Day! You two deserve to have the best ever.

    • Sylvia Allen February 26, 2019 at 5:31 pm #

      From your mouth to God’s ear (about not going backward). Thank you, Mary! Yes–I have also had the unhappy experience of having a long-term, very friendly neighbor publicly celebrate a piece of homophobic legislation. It was so painful. I’ve also had the opposite happen, though.

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