Unintended Consequences in San Francisco4,000 couples react to finding out they are unmarried once again

VOLUME 3, ISSUE 334 | August 19 – 25, 2004


Unintended Consequences in San Francisco

4,000 couples react to finding out they are unmarried once again

In the department of unintended consequences, last week’s California Supreme Court ruling may set some kind of a record.

As part of their decision last week to void San Francisco’s gay marriages, the justices ordered the city to refund the fees gay couples paid the city. Five days later, on August 17, San Francisco’s gay Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty announced a plan to give the couples the option of getting a check from the city—or donating the money to a fund that would be used to continue the fight over the constitutionality of the state’s gay marriage ban in court.

The fund could be as large as $400,000 in the unlikely event that all 4,000 couples decided to opt in—and the groups continuing the legal battle will need the money. The major constitutional question of equal protection, the one that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided in favor of same-sex couples, is still working its way through the lower courts in California.

Courtney Joslin, a lawyer at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one of the plaintiffs’ counsels in the suits, said her group would hire more lawyers if they were given some of the proceeds of the fund. They are up against the state attorney general’s office as one of the defendants. Joslin said she expects the opening briefs from both sides will be done by September, with a decision at the trial court level by the beginning of next year. Joslin would not predict when the case could reach the Supreme Court, but most legal observers doubt that would happen before the end of next year.

Last Thursday’s decision left many of benefits the couples have gotten because of their marriages in doubt. Like many, Esther Lee and Lisa Chun got a reduction in their insurance auto insurance premiums after they were married, which Lee estimated in the range of $1,000. Molly McKay, who heads Marriage Equality California, says she saved $316 on her insurance.

After the ruling was announced, Mayor Gavin Newsom stood in front of the television cameras and said, “We decided to put a human face on discrimination. It’s not about discrimination in the abstract. It’s about these people and their lives.”

And the biggest unexpected consequence of California’s marriages may be deeply personal — the acceptance of the couples by their families and friends.

Jerry Threet, who is 43 and works as an aide to a San Francisco city supervisor, and his partner Seth Ubogy saved a few hundred dollars a year on the insurance for their Berkeley home—but the most important thing that happened to them was a complete shift in attitude on the part of Threet’s parents, who are fundamentalist Christians in Beaumont, Texas.

Several other couples echoed Threet’s experience.

Threet and Ubogy had been together for eight years before they were married this February. They even had a commitment ceremony a year and a half ago, which his parents and sister refused to attend. But after they were married, Threet and Ubogy traveled to Texas and visited Threet’s family for the first time together.

“It was such a good trip, very affirming,” Threet said.

While he didn’t question the reasons for his family’s turnabout, his parents welcomed Ubogy, as if as much to say, if your relationship is good enough for your city government, I guess it’s good enough for us, Threet surmised.

In the wake of the ruling, Equality California, a statewide gay rights group, staged demonstrations in 15 cities. The rally in San Francisco drew about a thousand in a march from the gay civic center at Castro and Market Streets to City Hall, about a mile away. Among the speakers was gay San Francisco Assemblymember Mark Leno who will reintroduce his same-sex marriage bill in the new session of the California Assembly on December 6. He tried a similar bill in the current session, but it failed in committee. But this time, he said, he has the full support of the state’s Democratic Party leadership, with Speaker Fabian Núñez signing on as a co-sponsor.

“It’s time to take our destiny into our own hands,” Leno said at the rally. “We don’t need to sit like children at the feet of the Supreme Court pleading for our rights and first class citizenship.”

Could Leno’s bill pass?

“It’s very possible,” he said. “But it was almost imaginable a year ago.”

“Of course, we never dreamed of us being married,” said Del Martin this week. Martin and her partner of 50 years, Phyllis Lyon, co-founded one of the country’s first lesbian rights groups, the Daughters of Bilitis, and were the first couple married in San Francisco. Now they’re unmarried again after the Supreme Court annulled their wedding.

How does she feel about that?

“We feel the same,” Martin said. “We’re bound and determined. We’re going to keep fighting for marriage rights no matter how long it takes—and it will probably be years.”

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