Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Next Right Thing

Our first duty was to hand out breakfast. Armed with flat boxes of Krispy Kremes -- the official pastry of same-sex marriage -- we sallied forth.

"Have a doughnut -- a wedding ring you can eat."

"With this doughnut, I thee wed."

"One for each of you? Will this be a double-doughnut ceremony?"

On Sunday I learned that San Francisco City Hall had issued a call for volunteers to process the hundreds of same-sex couples who wanted marriage licenses. On Monday morning, I dropped Michele at work, picked up my friend RJ, and drove through wind and rain and blessedly light holiday traffic to San Francisco.

On the way up, we talked about why we were doing this. It's easy for me. I'm working to gain basic human rights for my community. Furthermore, I love marriage. It works for me, although my 16-year (straight) marriage ended.

Why was RJ volunteering? He is a straight, single guy. He could get married any time he wants, but he doesn’t want to. Not his community, not his institution. But he volunteered because helping people gives him pleasure, and he believes in doing "the next right thing."

That's a phrase that resonates.

At 8AM, the line was already wrapped well around the City Hall. People had been waiting for hours--even all night--in the rain and chill. Nevertheless, everyone in line was cheerful, and couples were chatting with newly made friends. I spotted subtle gestures of tenderness: a woman tucking a shawl around her partner's shoulder, two men holding hands while they talked. Along the line, people handed out free hot coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I heard later that many of the folks donating food and drink had been married over the weekend and returned to make life a little easier for those who were standing in the rain.

We were early, so we got breakfast at a Burger King down the block and came back before 9. Went in (cheered by the folks standing in line), through the metal detectors, and into orientation. Over doughnuts and orange juice, we learned that nobody new would be deputized to perform marriages. We were needed for practical matters: to guide people through the labyrinth, hand out information packets, offer drinks of water, and double-check paperwork against identification -- a crucial task, since the forms were poorly designed and confusing.

The more accurate we could get the applications before people got to the county clerk's office, the faster the process would go. Volunteers were not allowed to do data entry; only city employees could, and those who were present were all working for no pay, on a weekend and holiday when City Hall was supposed to be closed. More licenses, more marriages.

RJ worked as a runner, leading couples from the county clerk's office to the grand rotunda where they lined up to be married. I started going down the line, checking papers, answering questions, and wishing people good fortune.

The wedding parties had been standing in line for hours -- two to four hours once they got inside the building, plus many hours in line outside. The air in City Hall was warm and humid, chilly and wet outside. Many had children with them -- tiny babies in Snuglis, toddlers in strollers, teenagers playing games on cell phones. Almost everyone was burdened with umbrellas, backpacks, or blankets, and some had brought clothes to change into.

Yet what struck me most was the joy in that endless line. Every person I helped thanked me. Several offered warm hugs. People whose papers had already been validated still thanked me for coming out to help. Whenever volunteers entered or left the building, the people in line cheered and thanked them.

"I'm so amazed at how cheerful everyone is, after waiting in line in the rain."
"We've been waiting twenty years for this."

"It's like the Berlin Wall coming down." (glancing at papers) "You might not remember that -- you were only seven."

"We brought our passports. And driver's licenses. And look, here's my Social Security card. Which should we use?"
"Just make sure the name on the form exactly matches the name on the ID. These papers are legal forms. We want to make sure they're accurate, so that every marriage today is valid."

(filling out the form) "What day is it?"
"It's February 16, and you have to remember it -- that's your wedding anniversary now!"
"Our old anniversary was 4/1/01. I gave him a ring on top of the Eiffel Tower. Do I have to celebrate them both?"
(all three in unison) "Yes!"

"Oh, I am so nervous!"
"That's OK. Brides are allowed to be."

"What do I put in the employment field?"
"What job do you do?"
"I stay home and take care of our kids."
"Great! Then put homemaker or stay-at-home mom. You're not the first today."

"You live in Oregon?"
"We drove all night to get here."

"We've been together . . . " Fourteen years. Thirty years. Six years. Ten. I saw elderly frail couples who had spent their lives pretending to their families that they were roommates. I saw beautiful young couples who came with other same-sex couples to be married. I saw couples surrounded by friends, kids, in-laws.

"I see you've been married before, but you don't have the exact date of the divorce."
"I don't remember the date. Do-n! What was the date of our divorce?" "I think it was September 1987. The filing date was Super Bowl Sunday."

People wore sweats, hiking gear, jeans, tuxedos, elaborate wedding gowns. I saw several lesbian couples in matching gowns from their commitment ceremonies, including a pair in stunning cream-colored lace dresses. One girl was wearing a sleeveless wedding dress that had been made for a taller woman. A gay man in line behind her was stitching the shoulder seams so it fit her better. She and her bride were radiant in white. The two grooms in line behind them looked dashing in matching orange shirts.

Doctors. Construction workers. Programmers. Attorneys. Carpenters. A handsome Black man, a Baptist preacher and therapist, with his older white partner.

"Oh, you're from New Jersey?"
"Camden, just across the river from Philly."
"I went to college in Philadelphia -- Temple University."
"Really? I know Temple well."

Butch couples in crew cuts and tuxedoes, bears from the International Bear Association convention down the street. Dykes in softball uniforms ("that's how we met"). Nursing mothers baring a nipple to feed jiggling infants. One baby wore white shoes with rosebuds -- well, one white shoe. She tugged the other one off and tossed it into the crowd.

"We're really family, aren’t we?"

Yes, everyone in line today -- all the old ladies, the new babies, the volunteers, the handsome young men holding hands -- we all were one family, and we loved each other.

"What happens tomorrow?"
"I don’t know yet. The courts will be open, so they'll probably shut us down."

Early on, one of the brides said, "When they get an injunction against San Francisco, Berkeley ought to start doing this too."
"Yes, all the local towns could. They can't fight everybody."
"Swamp the courts!"
"Let's do it!"

On a break, I called Michele and mentioned that conversation.
"Has anybody talked to the mayor of Berkeley?"
"I don’t know, but you could email him. Email all of them."

In the ladies' room, someone had brought in a curling iron. Later I saw curling irons left in several other ladies' rooms. Someone had donated them.

From there, I walked into the main rotunda, a spectacular room with a graceful marble staircase and elegant galleries. This is where the couples lined up, waiting for the next officiant to lead them upstairs and marry them. In one corner, a duo played wedding music on a full-sized floor harp and a flute. I heard later that they--like many of the volunteers--had gotten married over the weekend and returned to help out.

By noon, we had validated pretty much everybody, and I went off to a spur-of-the-moment lunch with a friend. As I stood out on the steps, waiting for him, I saw half a dozen newlywed couples emerge. Every single time, the crowd cheered. Some people threw rice. Passing cars joyfully honked in Morse code: V for Victory.

After lunch, I checked more papers. "That's it. We can't let any more in today. There's no time for them to get married before we have to close City Hall."

Five minutes later: "We're going to let 20 people in every two minutes. Can you go down and direct traffic?"

So I went into the bowels of the building. By 3:15 they really had stopped letting people in. I finished checking papers for the last people in line, then came up to take a look at the wedding parties. Four lesbians of about my age were discussing what to sing when their friends were married. "Hey, she'll know. What's a good wedding song?"

"How about John Denver? I like 'Annie's Song"."

They started crooning, "You fill up my senses, like a night in a forest."
"No, no," I said, and sang, "Like a night on a sidewalk, like orange juice and doughnuts, like a line in the rain."

Text of Michele's email
Feel free to adapt for your own use

Subject: Equal Protection Under the Law

Dear Mayor [name]:

San Francisco has led the way in allowing same-sex couples to marry
based on California's equal protection clause. It's likely that on
Tuesday, forces that oppose same-sex marriage and protection for
same-sex families will obtain a court order telling the city of San
Francisco to stop; however, [our city] has the opportunity to continue
this massive and amazing action.

It's not only couples who are affected by the legal rights involved in
marriage; children also are better protected when raised in a family
that enjoys the protections of legal marriage.

As a voter in [our city], I urge you to support all California
families. Issue marriage licenses without reference to gender.

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