Winds of Change

“The winds of change,” declaimed then-speaker of California’s Assembly, Herb Wesso, and then paused in mid-sentence.

His bright, busy eyes scanned the gaggle of reporters and of activists sporting red, white and blue “We Deserve the Freedom to Marry” stickers. He scrutinized each of the several women in the crowd gathered on the capitol steps dressed in brilliant white wedding dresses.

Wesson, short, black, and a political lifer from gritty Culver City, just south of Beverly Hills, with two gay siblings, squinted in front of the state’s gleaming white Victorian capitol building and lifted one arm.

“The winds of change,” Wesson repeated, as he waved, “blow from west to east”—and then quickly scanned the crowd again, hoping for recognition.

That event, on a brilliant spring-like morning a year and a half ago, introduced San Francisco gay Assemblyman Mark Leno’s first bill that would have legalized gay marriage in the nation’s most populous state.

Leno’s bill received its first reading in the Assembly on the same day that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom started marrying same-sex couples in City Hall on February 12, 2004; and since then California, and San Francisco in particular, have elbowed their way toward the front of the marriage debate, despite the undeniable fact that Massachusetts remains the leader.

“Too much, too fast, too soon,” said, Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator, in the wake of the November presidential election, from the front yard of her Presidio Heights mansion, about Newsom’s nervy move last year.

“All Newsom did was to feed the flames of fear,” chimed in America’s most senior gay elected official, Rep. Barney Frank , the Massachusetts Democrat, on the same occasion.

Leno’s first bill, AB 1967, named in honor of the year California first legalized inter-racial marriage, failed a few months later in an Assembly committee. Wesson, swept away by term limits, is now running for the Los Angeles City Council.

But Leno’s bill is back, now for a third time. After failing by only four votes in the state Assembly two weeks ago, Leno is maneuvering to have it reintroduced in the State Senate, where it will likely pass, and then take another run at the Assembly.

“With a success on the Senate floor, we will have a political momentum,” he said.

“The winds of change blow from west to east?” asked Leno from his car phone as he dashed across California’s Central Valley from Sacramento to his home district in San Francisco for a fund-raiser Tuesday night. “Who said that?” The phone scratched. “Oh, ah-hah, that’s true.”

“It’s because San Francisco,” Leno said, “for many and complex reasons, has the tradition of being a home of last resort for many people—pioneers and fortune seekers…so it’s in our history here, with a significant queer population that has found a home over the past three or four decades.”

Leno said that on Sunday he had seen a new movie, “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” at an old gay bar, Aunt Charlie’s, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, about a 1966 event that Leno termed “San Francisco’s Stonewall.”

“A few transvestites and other radical types stood up to the San Francisco Police Department and said ‘we’re not going to take this shit anymore,’” Leno said. “That little mini-riot preceded Stonewall by three years.”

In San Francisco, more than 60 percent of the residents favor gay marriage and more than 80 percent describe themselves as supporters of Newsom, who on Monday started the city’s official Pride Celebration by hoisting a rainbow flag from the balcony of his office at the front of City Hall.

“How’s it look?” he asked, as other politicians and the grand marshals of the city’s pride parade jostled for positions next to him on the balcony in front of the photographers. “I would say it’s not straight, but what do I know?”

His smile now fixed, Newsom posed for pictures with the grand marshals—in fact with anyone who asked.

“I’m not sure that worked,” he suggested to one of the photographers. “You’ve got to hold it,” and then worked his way out the door of his office to a podium set up on another balcony overlooking the rotunda where most of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian marriages took place last year. He directed traffic from the podium. “C’mon Donna, let’s go,” he beckoned to drag queen and grand marshal Donna Sachet.

Newsom welcomed the dozens of city commissioners, department heads, members of the Board of Supervisors, for whom the annual event is obligatory. Two of the city’s 11 city supervisors are gay, as are the treasurer, two of the mayor’s closest advisors, the controller and the heads of the two largest municipal departments.

“The LGBTQ community,” Newsom said from the podium, “is what makes San Francisco such a wonderful place.” And then corrected himself. “It’s what makes San Francisco such a wonderful and fabulous place.”

At the ceremony, one of the city’s gay supervisors, Bevan Dufty, said he thinks the most important gay-related event this year was San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard A. Kramer’s March ruling that California’s opposite-sex-only marriage laws are unconstitutional. If upheld on appeal, the decision could make California the second state after Massachusetts to permit gay marriage, regardless of what happens to Leno’s bill.

But San Francisco has also started to move on.

“I’m so tired of gay marriage. There are other issues,” said Pride committee president Joey Cain, half-joking. He thinks the most important event of the year is the boycott of the Bandlands Bar in the heart of the Castro district, because, he explained, “the community is addressing uncomfortable issues like racism in our community.”

Castro bar owner Les Natali was accused of racism in his admission and hiring practices, and the city’s Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial body that is empowered to investigate discrimination cases, has found that there is at least some merit to the accusations. But the bar remains packed on most evenings, and the issue has begun to divide the community, especially as Natali begins a public-relations counterattack.

“Oh, and the Di-Fi Pink Brick,” said Cain.

The parade’s planning committee chose to give Feinstein its community worst-enemy award—former Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft being a previous recipient—Cain said, because she vetoed San Francisco’s first gay rights legislation as mayor of the city decades ago, because of her remarks after the November election and because she refuses to help sponsor legislation that would give gays and lesbians the right to bring their foreign partners into the country as permanent residents, as heterosexual couples can do with their spouses.

But transgender activist Robert Haaland, at the party after Newsom’s ceremony, said he thought the most important event of the year is a trans-national transgender pride march that will gather on Friday in Manhattan at 5:30 p.m. at the corner of Greenwich and Eighth Avenues and march to Union Square, in conjunction with a similar march in San Francisco happening later the same evening.

Gay marriage advocates, like Geoff Kors, the head of Equality California, the state’s LGBT lobby, say that marriage—official recognition that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual ones—will cause all other rights to fall into place, but gay city Supervisor Tom Ammiano isn’t so sure. Ammiano, a former public school teacher, led the city’s successful fight in 1978 against a state initiative that would have banned gays from teaching in the state’s schools.

“I’m there for gay marriage,” he said. “But public education is where a lot of the battle lies. Harassment … kids with gay parents. Nothing changes, especially in middle school.”

Transgendered teenager Gwen Araujo was murdered in a brutal bias attack across the bay from San Francisco, in Newark, in 2002. There have been no criminal convictions in the case to date.

To be sure, on marriage, a major battle for the hearts and minds California will continue until next year when a ballot initiative is likely to determine the fate of gay marriage in the state.

But, after his Pride Celebration, Newsom himself made no claim that any of the marriage-related news represented the most significant events in recent San Francisco political history, even though he was at the center of much of that news. Newsom moved from handshakes to more pictures with admirers, and then turned to answer questions.

“Sure, the court decision was important,” he said.

“But the most significant event is the parade itself. The greatest event is the celebration. Stand up. Live your life out loud,” Newsom said and turned back into the crowd of well-wishers.