California Dreamin'

As Gay Marriages Begin, Oakland Mayor Weds 18 Couples.

By: JASON VICTOR SERINUS | We've won! On June 16 at 5 p.m., 32 days after the California Supreme Court declared, in a 4-3 decision, that the ban on marriage by same-sex couples violated the State's Constitution, county clerks began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. California's long marriage haul, which received a major boost on February 12, 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom declared that gay marriages would commence in the city – only to be shot down six months later for exceeding his statutory authority, also by the state's highest court – is over… at least for now.

In November, California voters will decide whether to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. But November is November, and now is now. As someone who first married David James Bellecci in San Francisco on February 13, 2004, and remarried him in Oakland on June 16, 2008, I offer this less-than-objective report from the front.

Less than two hours after Newsom remarried the first same-sex couple who wed in San Francisco City Hall in 2004, lesbian rights pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon – founders of the first national lesbian rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis – Oakland Mayor Ronald V. Dellums became the only other mayor in California to officiate at marriage ceremonies on June 16. Dellums married 18 of the most racially, sexually, spiritually, and economically diverse couples one can imagine in a public ceremony in City Hall.

For the other couples as well as David and I, the honor of being married by a great freedom fighter – who during his 28 years in the US House of Representatives initiated congressional sanctions against apartheid and championed anti-war, civil rights, women's rights, and farm workers' rights efforts – was especially significant. The icing on the cake was the presence of Dellums' successor in Congress, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, as our witness. When Lee, a member of the newly formed Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, made up of the two out gay and lesbian House members and their allies, first addressed the 18 couples before the ceremonies commenced in City Council Chambers, everyone except the woman breastfeeding her child stood to cheer.

The initiative to hold public ceremonies at City Hall on Monday came from the mayor. On June 11, he expressed a desire to support same-sex couples as they took their marriage vows. Always a consensus-builder, who gained a reputation in Congress as the statesman most capable of bringing Republicans and Democrats together, Dellums would not act without the go-ahead from the queer community.

According to Miguel Bustos, Oakland's openly gay director of intergovernmental affairs, the mayor was concerned that no one had asked for his support. When Bustos suggested that perhaps people were shy, he responded, “I've never shied away from a civil or human rights issue.”

Initially, Bustos suggested that Dellums marry ten couples. But the mayor's desire to have the couples adequately represent the population of the second most diverse city in the US – Long Beach, near Los Angeles, is said to rank number one – led that number to increase to 18. I told Bustos that the number 18 symbolizes chai (life) in Jewish religion, lending extra spiritual significance to the occasion.

At a press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday afternoon, Dellums demurred from the suggestion that his participation was courageous. “You are the heroes,” he declared to the couples assembled, “not me. You have fought and won the struggle. This is a day for celebration.”

I am a recent mayoral appointee to Oakland's Community Policing Advisory Board, but my work as a music critic had me in Denver attending the Music Critics and National Performing Arts Conventions on June 13 when I received an invitation from Bustos to participate in the ceremony. Four decades ago, I was an anti-war activist with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); I spent the summer of 1965 registering black voters in North Carolina and founded the New Haven Gay Liberation Front in the spring of 1970; that summer I lived in New York City's second gay political collective and helped launch the first gay men's radio show in the US.

The honor Bustos offered was overwhelming.

I did have to solve three thorny problems – jettisoning David and my original plans to marry in July; morphing a surprise family 50th birthday party for David into a wedding celebration, and convincing my publicity-shy spouse to take our vows before an assembled throng of press and public. Happily, right before my arrival back in the Bay Area, David ran into our brother-in-law, and indulged in several pre-Father's Day rounds of extra-strong Scotch-on-the-rocks. He was primed to concede.

It was quite a scene when we assembled in the Alameda County Clerk's office at 4:30 p.m. on Monday. A rainbow army, including a gowned-up Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, swept past a single Christian crazy outside holding large protest signs. When the county computer finally spit out the wedding certificate form, David loved the fact that the template still asked for the second partner's – that would be my – maiden name.

Over at City Hall, the couples spent time in the mayor's conference room, continuing to get to know one another. When, 45 minutes late, we finally proceeded to the City Council Chambers, along with Dellums and Lee, the roar was deafening.

The marriage contract the mayor had prepared thankfully omitted “'til death do us part.” When the first couple, longtime city employees Karen Boyd and Samee Roberts, were asked to vow to honor, cherish, love, and protect each other, Samee dispensed with the “I do” and proclaimed, “Absolutely!” Oakland is not a city of conformity.

When it came our turn, couple number 7 (David's lucky number – if you'll indulge a bit more my fascination with such omens) came forward with friends Béla and Irene and sister Janet. Affirming the sacred bond David and I first made during our ceremony in 2004, when we discovered that the spiritual dimensions of our commitment transcended legalese, we danced our own version of “You'd Better Believe I Do.”

Once we were married, I did the Jewish thing. Instead of smashing a glass, I held a recyclable plastic water bottle aloft before placing it on the floor. My gentile husband, wearing his preposterously expensive shoes, Bruno and Walter, gave Walter the cue to smash the bottle. As I raised my fist into the air, a previously unknown Jewish contingent in the balcony began chanting “Mazel Tov” and clapping while others cheered.

So here we are. Our marriage is recognized, not only in California, but also in New York and Massachusetts. Other states are sure to follow, as other countries will go down the same road as Canada, Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands, Belgium, and – just last week – Norway. As stories of marriage by California's gay and lesbian couples multiply, it will surely help our vital efforts heading toward November's right-wing effort to snatch our victory away.

We have surely moved one more step closer to full equality. As we proclaimed while marching in New York's first Gay Pride Parade in 1970, “Gay Love is Gay Strength.”