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San Francisco Wedding Story

The story of a same-sex couple who have just gotten married at City Hall.
Sylvia Allen

Issue #67, April 2004

I heard about the San Francisco same-sex marriages Thursday evening, when it came out on the news. Martha shouted from her office next to mine, "C'mere! You've gotta see this!" She was looking at S.F. Gate, at the photo everybody would see again and again for the next few days, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon holding hands while Kate Kendall wept behind them. Del and Phyl, together for 51 years, and pioneers, as Martha was, of the gay liberation movement, had just been married by Mayor Newsom at San Francisco City Hall.

The city issued marriage licenses to 117 other same-sex couples before the offices closed for the day. Anti-marriage organizations were suing to stop them, but in the meantime the marriages would continue on Friday. "So should we go?" Martha asked. We were still undecided the next morning.

Wedding rings on rainbow flag

Martha and I had our wedding five years ago in Tilden Park. We became domestic partners in the state of California three years ago. Last summer we went to Vancouver and got legally married in Canada. We've been planning to go to Massachusetts next fall for our first legal marriage in the United States — depending on how the Massachusetts legislature responds to the court decision. I have assumed all along that we would not see legal marriage in California, not in our lifetime.

It's a shame, and it's unfair. I have Social Security and a lot of medical problems. We're both getting older. When I am hospitalized, which happens every so often, Martha is always able to charm the hospital staff into treating her as my spouse. If we were married, we wouldn't have to depend on using our charm at a stressful time, or on the special kindness of individual hospital employees. If I die before Martha, she won't get my Social Security benefits, as a legal spouse does. Beyond that, though, is just the sense of being less than a full citizen, our relationships less real, less substantial-like the slaves before emancipation, unable to marry.

On Friday we both had a lot of work to do. It was a long haul from our Oakland house by public transportation to San Francisco City Hall. It was raining, and lines would be long. A court hearing was scheduled for that day to decide whether the marriages should be shut down immediately. We thought it inevitable that this astonishing legal interlude would end within a few hours, leaving us stranded with nothing but a head cold after waiting outside City Hall in the rain for hours. At 2:30 on Friday, though, when we got to City Hall, the line was indoors. Three desperate security guards struggled to manage a knot of people and strollers at the metal detector. The noise hit us like a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. At the back of the lobby we came up against a section of that long, long rope of cheerful couples that tied the chaos of this day together. Pairs of middle-aged women like us in jeans and sweatshirts shouted excitedly into cell phones. Behind them young men in tuxedos with roses on the lapel swapped stories with slim 30-something women in suits. Children ran and shrieked. Hundreds of voices bounced and echoed off the marble walls.

We threaded our way back along the line, around the south side of the rotunda under City Hall's famous gold-trimmed dome. We passed two men each carrying an infant in a pouch. We passed several strollers. People were eating sandwiches, arriving with paper cups of coffee. One pair of women had a pile of sweaters, raincoats, canvas bags, an ice chest, and two lawn chairs on the floor in front of them. They pushed it all ahead of them with their feet when the line moved. Around a corner we were delighted to spot our good friends Helen and Hennie already in line. Nobody seemed to mind our stepping into the line with them. This way we could witness each others' weddings and chat with them while we waited. Down the line from us there was a pair of fresh-faced, heavy girls in white satin wedding dresses. "Mom?" one of them was saying into a cell phone, "Guess what?" Half the people around us seemed to be on the phone. Helen was talking to her elderly mother, patiently explaining what was happening. Hennie had just gotten off the phone with their 13-year-old daughter Darcy's other two mothers, who were on their way to City Hall themselves.

Like us, Helen and Hennie were not very dressed up. Martha and I had discussed dressing up but in the end decided that we might be waiting in long lines outside City Hall on a cold wet day, so we both just wore soft, warm cotton clothes in layers. Martha's were a dark plum color and mine were pale lichen green with a black and rose pink scarf.

People who were at City Hall on other business had to break through the line to get in and out. One woman wearing a red suit and carrying a briefcase stopped just on the other side of the line, turned, and shouted back, "Congratulations, all of you!" She had tears in her eyes. She walked on out into the lobby. I went out into the lobby myself and found a relatively quiet corner so I could call my sister. "Guess what?" I said.

The line crept forward, a few feet every ten minutes. San Francisco's City Hall is heavily Beaux Arts. Like the rest of this building, the hallway we were slowly traversing was dimly lit, cold, and rich with marble and polished bronze. Two men in business suits came hustling along carrying stacks of blue papers, handing one to each couple. It turned out to be the new application for a marriage license. I took the form over to a table in the hallway and filled out my information under "1st Applicant." I went back to our group and Martha took the form to fill out the "2nd Applicant" section. The form used to say "Bride" and "Groom."

Darcy arrived with her other two moms and they all stood in line with us. Darcy has the sullen, vulnerable beauty of a young teenager. She was dressed in high Goth and looked miserable — she doesn't like crowds or noise. Two young clerks, male and female, came along the line checking everyone's application forms. The man carefully read our form, initialed the bottom, and gave it back to us.

Every few minutes we heard an enormous cheer from the direction of the rotunda. As we moved around to the front of the rotunda we saw that several weddings were taking place on those majestic marble stairs. Each time a wedding concluded, the entire rotunda section of the line would whoop and cheer. Teams of reporters and video cameras wandered in and out of the line. Cameras flashed constantly as the line paused to accommodate photographs.

Our line went down some stairs and snaked around the labyrinth of corridors in the basement. We passed a soda machine that was doing brisk business. I went on a mission to find the basement bathrooms. When I got back Darcy was sitting hunched against a wall behind a pillar with her eyes closed.

Martha told me the word had come down that the judge had refused to stop the marriages, saying there was no irreparable harm being done. The marriages would continue on Saturday, Valentine's day. Another anti-marriage suit was scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday. It was almost 4:00 already, but the County Clerk's office would be open an extra hour, until 5:00. With luck, we would at least get our license before the office closed.

Our little party started back up the basement stairs. At the top we found ourselves in the North Light Court, with its immense skylight made of hundreds of small panes of glass. There's a sort of a cafe there, and Darcy and her two families stocked up on snacks and sodas. Today the cafe was also selling bottles of champagne and fancy chocolate bars. Two more clerks came through, checking our IDs and initialing our blue application forms again. Another young man came by handing each couple a numbered ticket, the kind they use in delis. "Hold onto this," he said. "If you don't have a number you won't get your license." A few minutes later, as we were leaving the North Light Court, another pair of clerks checked everyone's papers yet again. We felt as if we were crossing borders in war-torn Europe. We had a fourth inspection of our documents a few minutes later.

In the gallery outside the North Light Court, a pair of beaming middle-aged men came strutting back along the line, one of them waving their new marriage license over his head. The line erupted in applause and cheers. Each couple that passed us, returning from the County Clerk's office, license in hand, was applauded. A big group of Japanese men with cameras passed through the line, looking very puzzled. The word came along that the city had decided to open the offices on Sunday as well, to perform as many marriages as possible before the hearing.

We turned a corner and finally we could see the County Clerk's office ahead of us. A young woman in a skirt and blouse came around the corner behind us, trailed by a young man in Dockers. The woman was looking at us all in disbelief. She turned back toward the young man, shaking her head, frowning, and gesturing emphatically at the line. I couldn't hear what they were saying. They hurried back the way they had come. I imagine they had planned a Valentine's Day wedding, had left the license until the last minute, and were encountering some very bad luck.

In the County Clerk's office, each desk and counter in the room had been converted into a row of marriage license assembly lines. I expected the people staffing the office to be harried and crabby, but they all seemed thrilled to be there. We heard afterward that these clerks, and the others who had checked our documents, and the extra guards on duty at the doors, and the dozens of officials performing marriages all over the second floor were nearly all volunteers, city employees who had chosen to be there to participate in the city's enormous act of civil disobedience. The young Asian man who processed our application grinned happily at us. We paid him our $82.00 in cash, and he handed us our license and a booklet, Your Future Together... Health Information You Need to Know, with a picture of a retro-looking bride and groom on the cover. "Congratulations!" he said. "What a wonderful day!" The booklet contained a lot of information about pregnancy and STDs.

Wonder Women from movie 'Double Dare', ad for Ann Arbor Film Festival 2004We waited for Helen and Hennie to get their license and then set out for the second floor where the weddings were still being performed. As we passed back along the line waiting couples clapped and cheered, just as we had for the ones before us.

On the second floor, we emerged from the elevator into more noise and high spirits. There was a line up here, too, but a much shorter one. We could see four weddings taking place down on the marble staircase, several at the top of the stairs, and one in every alcove of the gallery around the rotunda. As each wedding concluded, whoever was officiating would come to the head of the line and take the next couple.

Some of the officiants wore judges' robes, some were in business suits, and some were dressed fairly casually. We saw City Assessor Mabel Teng performing weddings in her vivid orange suit. On the other side of us we saw a wedding with the whole family present, including three children, several young adults, and a very elderly man leaning on a walker. Darcy and her other moms arrived and got in line. Darcy sat on the floor again, looking pale and ill.

Soon after we got to the head of the line, an elderly Chinese man in a long black robe came and led us to an alcove overlooking the rotunda on the side of the gallery. He introduced himself as Marriage Commissioner Richard Ow. Hennie and Helen went first. They stood with their backs to the grand staircase, beaming, while Commissioner Ow read through the official civil marriage ceremony, including the exchange of rings. Martha and I signed their license as witnesses, then hastily removed our own wedding rings so we would be ready. Ow pronounced our friends "husband and wife, spouse for life" to each other.

Then it was our turn. Commissioner Ow's face was heavily lined, serene, and cheerful. He leaned toward us so we could hear him in the pandemonium. "I've been doing this for 30 years," he said, and smiled a little V-shaped smile. "This is a wonderful day." Martha and I listened while he read the service. Ow invited us to become husband and wife, spouses for life to each other. As we said "I do", I remembered standing up with Martha and another marriage commissioner in a park in Vancouver, and years before, the cantor in Tilden Park. "With this ring, I thee wed," I said, trying to wrestle Martha's ring back on her finger. Martha got my ring back onto my finger with a similar struggle. We kissed. Commissioner Ow signed our license. We shook his hand and stepped aside for the next wedding.

The four of us went and collected Darcy and her other moms and headed back downstairs to the Recorder's office. Several counters and folding tables had been converted to makeshift marriage registration stations. Martha and I paid $13 at the cashier's window, then went and handed our signed license to a clerk at one of the tables. These clerks looked as stunned as I'd expected the staff in the County Clerk's office to be earlier. It was late, and it had been a long, tiring day. Another clerk came and leaned over our clerk's station. "She's going to keep it going through Monday," he told her. Monday would be the President's Day holiday. Our clerk nodded, rolled her eyes, and kept working.

We went and sat down with Helen and Hennie. A few minutes later another clerk called us over. "Allen and Shelley?" We nodded, and he handed us our pink and blue marriage certificate, stamped with the Great Seal of the State of California.

The four of us left City Hall at 6:05. The lines were still snaking all over the halls and weddings were still happening up on the stairs. We heard later that they didn't close until 9:00 that night, when all the people with numbers had been married. Outside, the rain had stopped and the sky was dark blue. Martha and I hugged Helen and Hennie "Good night" and headed toward the BART station.

Will this grant Martha her right to my Social Security, or passage to my bedside if some hospital nurse is rigid about rules? No. But for once, at last, for however long it lasts in San Francisco, our marriage is as real, as solid, as serious, as substantial as anyone else's. And we have the documentation to prove it.

Holding hands on the train back to Oakland, we told the two nice straight ladies in the seats across from us that we had just gotten married at City Hall. We pulled out our marriage certificate and showed it to them. They were delighted.

Sylvia Allen is a freelance writer who operates a walking tour business, San Francisco City Hikes. She has published articles on various topics, including AIDS dementia, meeting facilitation, suicide prevention, and designing information for web use. She is working on a book of linked short stories and a book of hikes in San Francisco. She lives in Oakland with her wife, Stonewall-era gay rights activist and writer Martha Shelley.

Credits: Wonder Women from movie "Double Dare" by Amanda Micheli, 2003.

Copyright © 2004 by Sylvia Allen. All rights reserved.