I’m standing with a group of several hundred people outside the San Francisco court house. We’re awaiting the verdict of the California Supreme Court on Proposition 8; the constitutional amendment passed by voters last November defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman and overriding the law allowing gay marriage passed by the California legislature last June.
Judging by the signs they are carrying, the crowd is overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality. Not surprising really; this is San Francisco after all. What is surprising perhaps is that those who are for and against equality are all lumped in together. Signs that read “Love Makes a Family” are side-by-side with others that say “GAY = PERVERT.” The demonstrators on both sides are peaceful and the mood is quietly upbeat. Stickers and T-shirts are being distributed and one enterprising soul has set up a stand where he’s selling buttons that say things like “My two moms can beat up your ten wives” and “Jesus was a liberal.” I settle on one featuring of close-up shot of a cock going into a pussy emblazoned with the words “FUCK UTAH” in bright green; a salute to the Mormon church based there, which was the single largest donor the to Prop 8 campaign last fall.
A group of several hundred additional marriage equality supporters march up to join the group, fresh from an inter-faith prayer service at a nearby church. The group is clad mostly in T-shirts saying things like “Second Class Citizen” though there are a handful of outrageous costumes mixed in. Lead by a group of 20 or so faith leaders from different gay loving religious organizations, the group is chanting “What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!” The police who are milling around, looking relatively unphased, pull back the barricades to allow the group to join those who are already there, more than doubling the size of the gathering.
I end up chatting with Frank and Joe, a gay couple who were married last June during the brief window when it was legal, and are waiting to see whether or not they are going to be forcibly divorced in the next 10 minutes. For Frank and Joe marriage equality isn’t just about ending discrimination. It’s about having the ability to walk. Joe was seriously injured in a car accident several years ago that left him with a mangled right leg. After several surgeries he was able to walk again, but both his hip and his knee joint are deteriorating. As a result he’s only able to work part time, meaning he’s not entitled to health benefits from his employer. Frank is a member of union of elevator repair workers that comes with a steady paycheque and benefits. The problem is that without a legal marriage, his union won’t provide benefits to his spouse. Joe tries his best to hold back tears as he talks about the fact that he’ll be wheelchair-bound within three years.
It makes one feel doubly blessed for living in Canada where we’re entitled to marry who we want and have health care regardless of our sexual orientation. The couple had actually looked into moving to the Great White North back in 2004 after Bush was elected to a second term in office. Frank was able to get a transfer within his union easily, however Joe would have to pay a hefty price (something in the range of $200,000, he says) to enter the country since he wouldn’t be immediately employable. At that time the couple had sufficient equity in their home that they could have sold it and had enough to make the move. “We decided to stay and fight,” says Joe. “We were both born in this country and we should be treated the same as all citizens.” Unfortunately, with the economic crash of 2008, the couple’s house has declined significantly in value, and moving is no longer an option.
The mood of the crowd starts to intensify as the hour of truth comes closer. They begin chanting again in unity and waving their signs. There is hand holding and tears. There are prayers being said on both sides.
A group of reporters emerge from the courthouse with the official decision printed on several hundred pages. There is no megaphone holding leader to announce the decision to us. Instead the activists who were inside step out and give us a simple hand gesture; thumbs down. The court has upheld Prop 8 by a margin of 6-1. There are boos through the crown and the chant starts up again; “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The one bright spot in the mix is that the court has determined that the law cannot be applied retroactively, so those couples who were married before the ban will be able to stay married. The crowd begins chanting “Shame on you!” and the handful of equality opponents who seem to be the only people smiling.
Frank and Joe are crying now but they aren’t giving up hope. “We’ll just have to keep fighting,” says Frank, before the two leave with the rest of the group who are marching down to the Castro district; no doubt to drown their sorrows with some late morning drinking. Activists from Equality California are wondering through the crowd collecting names and phone numbers of people who are interested in volunteering in an upcoming phone campaign. They are planning to try to swing the voters of the state towards the side of equality in the next referendum, which they are hoping to see on the ballot as early as 2010.
“No matter what was decided today, we knew this fight was not going to be over,” one activist named Kevin tells me. “We’re going to work together as a community until each one of the citizens in this country has equal rights. Prop 8 only passed by a margin of two percent. When we have another referendum we don’t need to change everyone’s mind to gain equality, only three percent.”