|REPORT FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO MARRIAGE FRONT
Jason Victor Bellecci-Serinus
February 15, 2004
This article has appeared in different versions in Windy City Times (Chicago), Gay City News (NYC), Baltimore Gay Paper, Lavender Reader (Minneapolis), and Colorado Springs Independent.
“Gay Love is Gay Strength.” We stenciled these words on T-shirts and chanted them at rallies in the early days of the Gay Liberation Front. Love, the love that dare speak its name and shout its truth in proud and angry defiance, was the overriding force I felt at those pioneering lesbian/gay marches and actions. And 34 years later, on Friday the 13th, 2004, I felt it just as strongly as I entered San Francisco City Hall to marry the man I love.
On the day David and I became the Bellecci-Serinus family, the usual divisions of class, sex, sexual orientation, and race seemed to vanish. Blacks, browns, whites, Asians, and people of all sexual persuasions and spiritual traditions volunteered to help same-sex couples unite. Lesbians and gay men hugged each other as straight people handed them forms and flowers. There was only one language spoken besides sign here, pay there, and “Do you promise?” It was a language of oneness, the expression of a long-held vision fulfilled. It was a language of love.
There are only two other times in my long history with gay liberation (which began when I founded the New Haven GLF in the spring of 1970) that I have felt such incredible unanimity of spirit. One was at a 1970 summer evening’s gay dance in New York City’s Alternate U. Within minutes of entering the packed space, this middle class white Jewish boy, then living in the 17th St. gay collective, had joined an exuberant multi-racial kick line of street walking transvestites. All divisions seemed to vanish as we threw up our heels, singing and shouting our new anthem: Aretha’s “Respect.” The other was at the first Lesbian/Gay March on Washington, D.C. when hundreds of thousands of dykes and fags locked arms and swayed side to side as Holly Near led us in choruses of “We Are a Gentle, Loving People.”
President’s Day weekend was extraordinary. Starting February 12th, when pre-Stonewall Daughters of Bilitis founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon became the first to wed, thousands of same-sex couples descended upon San Francisco City Hall. The building’s entire staff mobilized to unite as many people as possible. By Sunday, 1600 couples had received marriage certificates. And on Monday February 16, a holiday on which City Hall was normally closed, doors opened an hour earlier than planned to process an unprecedented 740 couples in seven and a half hours, 100 more than County Assessor Mabel Teng had deemed possible! Not everyone who lined up outside City Hall made it in, but those who had spent the night in the rain or awoke at the crack of dawn to hightail it downtown had the opportunity to say ?I Do.? Even gay Supervisor Tom Ammiano and gay Assemblyman Mark Leno were on hand to serve as witnesses.
David and I discussed getting married on Thursday, shortly after word of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s defiance of California’s prohibition of same-sex marriage broke. By Friday AM we were ready. First, I put in a call to Supervisor Tom Ammiano to see if the coast was still clear. Reaching only an answering machine, we joined Baci Brown of canine renown for our regular run in Oakland’s Redwoods. When we returned home, we heard a message from Tom saying to come on down. But when we heard on the radio that the line for marriage certificates was already 2 hours long, we skipped shaving, breakfast and clean clothes to drive to San Francisco as fast as we could, naively thinking we could marry and return in time for each of us to complete our work for the day.
As we passed through City Hall’s metal detectors, everyone was smiling, from uniformed guards to county clerks. The atmosphere was warm and trusting. Women I had never met before let me use their cell phone to call our dear friend Béla Nuss, who left work to witness our wedding.
At one point I ran into Will Roscoe, author of The Zuni Man-Woman and editor of Harry Hay’s Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder. When I told Will how I wished that Harry were still alive so that he and John Burnside could have considered being married alongside Phyllis and Del, he responded with tears in his eyes.
“I wish my beloved Bradley was still with us as well so we too could marry.” As we hugged, I realized that the reason I knew so few people in line was that so many of my generation had joined Bradley in death from AIDS.]
We were cheered as we headed to the “altar,” the long steps leading up City Hall’s gleaming rotunda. The man who conducted our ceremony, otherwise the Mayor’s Community Liaison, was a confirmed heterosexual, born in the Castro, who had been deputized especially for the occasion. We laughed as I failed in my attempt to recycle Jewish tradition by smashing a plastic Calistoga bottle; it took my Catholic husband and removal of the top to achieve the big pop. It felt like one huge family had reunited after a long enforced separation.
The atmosphere had changed a bit on Monday afternoon when this newlywed returned to help others. Processes were far more organized, and some burned out volunteers and Sheriff’s deputies were in super-control mode. The last couples to take their vows had to accept that, with so many people mobbing the building, mothers, sisters and friends who had waited outside hoping to witness their unions could not get in. I soothed a number of temporarily broken-hearted spouses-to-be, helping them reconnect with the love that had brought them there in the first place.
What does it all mean? I can only speak for myself. When I looked in my beloved’s eyes and swore that I would remain faithful to him for the rest of my life, I felt an incredible spiritual affirmation. In that moment, I knew that if anything I had ever done or said in this lifetime held truth for me, this was it.
Copyright 2004 Jason Victor Serinus. Permission must be granted for publication.
|NULL AND VOID
Jason Victor Bellecci-Serinus
August 12, 2004
I knew it was coming. The announcement that the California Supreme Court would rule within the month on the legality of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s initiative granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples had been made weeks earlier. But the Oakland Tribune story that the ruling would be announced at 10 AM this very morning, August 12, caught me by surprise.
I had just arrived at work. Noting it was 9:57, I dropped everything I was supposed to do and raced to the radio. Good old 24/7 KCBS-AM newstalk radio. Weather, traffic, and then the headlines.
Shortly after the hourly recitation of Bush’s latest lies and travesties of justice, the blow came. California’s Supreme Court justices had ruled 7-0 that Newsom had exceeded his authority by ignoring the state law, approved by majority referendum in an earlier era, that marriage could only be between a man and a woman.
As for the marriage license that David and I had received on February 13, the day after the first marriages were performed in San Francisco City Hall, it had been rendered null and void. The vote was 5 to 1 with one abstention.
I was stunned, crestfallen, hurt and angry. In an age when Bush and crew were attempting to circumnavigate the courts by calling every decision that upheld the constitution a product of “liberal activist judges,” judges upholding the authority of law had seemed likely. But how dare they tell me that one of the most important events of my life, whose impact I feel every waking moment (and that warms me in my sleep), was no longer recognized as valid?
I ran to the phone to call my husband David. The poor man. He hates it when I call him at the hair salon, especially on days when he has head to head clients. But I had to share the news.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re still married,” I said. I love you.”
“Yes,” said he, with the tone of a man who couldn’t let himself get too into his feelings without risking cutting off someone’s ear. “I love you too.”
Knowing my head could come next, I said goodbye. This one was for me to work through without hubbie at my side.
I kept listening to the news. A political analyst declared that my marriage certificate was worthless, and that I had might as well toss it unless I wished to keep it as a memento. Gay Supervisor Tom Ammiano, the man I had initially called on February 13 to find out if the coast was clear for us to head to City Hall, declared that nothing could nullify the incredible joy and elation over 4000 couples and their supporters had felt in the weeks while licenses were issued. And various law professors offered cool, calm, reasonable analysis.
I felt considerably less reasonable. I knew Tom was right that one of the most ecstatic, boundary-breaking days of my life could never be taken from me. But years of emptiness once again pulled me through layers of despair.
Lots of thoughts flooded my brain. This is only a first step. The tide is turning. The California Supreme Court has not ruled on the constitutionality of the state ban on same-sex marriage. They may in fact rule (as has the court in Massachusetts) that such a ban is unconstitutional. But that could take a year or two more. What about now?
And then it hit me. I felt just as I did in the late ‘60s. The dope I smoked, the acid I dropped, the war I opposed, the men I lusted after, the draft that pegged me for cannon fodder, the blacks I helped register to in 1965, the social equality and right to joy I fought for. Everything I believed in was either illegal or considered against the grain.
Of course, I reminded myself that back then, social approbation had never stopped me.
I reflected on my past. I began to resolve my long-standing sexual identity crisis as I approached my 24th birthday. A few months before Stonewall, I had entered my first gay bar and begun to live with my first lover. The following spring, when I started the New Haven Gay Liberation Front and then moved to New York City to live in pioneering gay collectives, wear nail polish and long pierced earrings in the street, and again grow my hair long, I could care less what “they” said.
I did what I needed to do to reclaim the parts of me that parents and society had done their best to suppress. In the process, I upheld the rights of others who had been equally oppressed. As long as my actions defended freedom and didn’t hurt anyone, what was the problem?
The problem was that almost 40 years later, the State was back to policing my most intimate actions. People in black robes had once again “defended the law” by declaring that the law of nature does not apply to lesbians and gays. Just as bad, right wing fundamentalists seemed closer to overturning Roe vs. Wade and denying women the right to control their own bodies. (Tell me there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans, and I’ll bet you’re either a straight white male or someone so steeped in guilt and sin that you have an unconscious propensity to sabotage yourself as punishment).
One part of me was again saying “no way.” But the shout was more subdued than in 1969. I was far more in touch with my feelings than I was in my twenties and thirties, and my heart was hurting.
I made a number of calls, sent out a bunch of posts when I got home, and spoke to a number of people. Most of the messages of concern and support I received were from straight people. I began to feel better.
My friend Joey Cain, head of the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Celebration Committee (boy, were titles simpler in 1970) told me about the 5:30 pm rally in San Francisco. But that conflicted with our plans to attend our first Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meeting since we had become highly visible married minority homeowners in the heart of Oakland’s densely populated barrio. When David said we needed to tend to our own community first, I acknowledged my need to protect my immediate turf. And when attendance connected us with two lesbian couples, the first members of our tribe we have met in the area in over three months, I knew we had made the right decision.
When we returned home, I found an e-mail post from a fellow member of the Northern California heart-centered gay/bi men’s Billy Club community. He had just attended an affirming protest rally in Santa Rosa, two hours north of San Francisco, and relayed the following story:
“A gay friend of ours, a tour guide in San Francisco, was giving a bus tour to a bunch of folks from Kentucky this morning. When the bus went past City Hall, they found traffic slowed by all the news media. Everyone was wondering what was going on.
“Our friend had the bus stop. All the folks waited inside while he went over to find out what was going on. When he returned and told everyone that the California Supreme Court had just rejected all of the gay marriages, the whole bus broke into applause.
“Needless to say, his day was devastated as he spent the next several hours broken-hearted, guiding these “people” through SF in a business-as-usual manner.”
Besides thanking my fellow Billy for his resolve “to do everything I can to honor those in relationships around me, and to put myself in a place where I can effect change such that all loving unions will be recognized,” I lamented that his friend had not seized the opportunity to come out. Challenge = opportunity. His friend had missed the opportunity to effect change and heal himself by sharing the truth that was in his heart.
This is how we change people; one at a time. It isn’t just by slogans or picket signs or demonstrations, as essential as they can be. It is by becoming examples, by living the gay love that is our strength.
Coming out may ultimately be a “personal decision.” But as the New Jersey governor debacle demonstrates, loving from the closet can have drastic collective consequences.
We are all connected. Perhaps that’s one reason the forces of reaction fear same-sex marriage so much. It sanctions the heart-connection, the spiritual bond between all human beings that those who achieve power through polarization consistently deny.
We are loving human beings who deserve to live in a world where all living things are free to thrive and honor the holy spirit they embody. Same-sex marriage is an essential step in that direction. It is a right we all have this very moment, and one that will be recognized in U.S. law no matter what they say.
Copyright 2004 Jason Victor Serinus. Permission must be granted for publication.
Marriage, California Style
[A shortened version of this article, entitled “California Dreamin,’” appeared on the front page of the June 19, 2008 issue of New York City’s Gay City News. The accompanying photo illustrated the article.]
We’ve won! On June 16, 200832 days after the California Supreme Court declared, in a 4-3 decision, that California’s ban on same-sex marriages violated the state’s constitution, clerks in all but a few conservative counties began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at 5 p.m. California’s long marriage haul, which received a major boost on February 12, 2004, when San Francisco’s newly elected Mayor Gavin Newsom declared that same-sex marriages would commence in the city, is over… at least for now.
In November, when CA voters will decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to legally ban same-sex marriage in the state. 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 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 that 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 become the only other Mayor in California to officiate 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 Oakland City Hall.
For us and the other couples, the honor of being married by a great freedom fighter, who during his 28 years in the U.S. House of Representatives initiated congressional sanctions against apartheid and championed anti-war, peace, and civil, women’s and farm workers’ rights efforts, was tremendous. The icing on the cake was the presence of Dellums’ successor in Congress, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, as our witness. When Lee, a member of the Congressional Gay and Lesbian Caucus and the only Congressperson to oppose the invasion of Afghanistan, first addressed the 18 couples before the ceremonies commenced in City Council Chambers, everyone save the woman breastfeeding her child stood to cheer.
The initiative for Oakland’s public ceremonies came from Dellums. On June 11, he expressed a desire to support same-sex couples take their marriage vows. Always a consensus-builder, who gained the reputation in Congress as the statesmen 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 postulated that perhaps people were shy, he responded, “I’ve never shied away from a civil or human rights issue.” Once Bustos contacted community members, the response was so positive that he immediately began working with the Mayor to plan the ceremonies. Among those pitching in was Peggy Moore, founder of Sistahs Steppin’ in Pride, one of Oakland’s oldest lesbian groups.
Initially, Bustos suggested that Dellums marry 10 couples. But the Mayor’s desire to have the couples adequately represent the population of the second most diverse city in the United States Long Beach is first by such a small percentage point that it is virtually a statistical dead heat led Bustos to increase the number to 18. No one on the Mayor’s staff realized until this only Jewish child spoke with Bustos two days later that the number 18, which symbolizes chai (life) in Jewish religion, lent extra spiritual significance to the occasion.
The Personal Becomes Political
At a press conference on the steps of Oakland City Hall on Monday afternoon, Dellums refused to accept that his participation was courageous. The people on the front lines, the people who have stood up against queer oppression for all these years, are the courageous ones. “You are the heroes,” he declared, “not me. You have fought and won the struggle. This is a day for celebration.”
As the Mayor’s recent appointee to Oakland’s Community Policing Advisory Board, this music and audiophile critic was in Denver attending the Music Critics and National Performing Arts Conventions when he first received a request from Bustos on June 13 to participate in the ceremony. As a former SDS anti-war activist who spent the summer of 1965 registering blacks to vote in North Carolina, founded the New Haven Gay Liberation Front in the spring of 1970, lived in New York City’s second gay political collective that summer, and helped launch the first gay men’s radio show in the United States, the honor of being married by Ronald V. Dellums and Barbara Lee felt like the culmination of a 43-year personal, political, and spiritual odyssey.
There were three issues to surmount: what to do about our initial plan to marry in July, how to comfortably morph plans for the family’s June 16 surprise 50th birthday party for David into a combined birthday/wedding celebration, and how to propose to the publicity-shy spouse (aka, the unlawfully wedded husband) that we legally wed before an assembled throng of press and public.
Happily, right before my beloved picked me up at the airport on June 14, he had treated one of our brother-in-laws to several pre-Father’s Day rounds of extra-strong Scotch-on-the-rocks. My baby was thus primed to concede. Not all the family has been comfortable with the last-minute change of plans, but my hope is that when they see photos showing how ecstatic my husband was during the ceremony, they will understand that our unexpected wedding has served the highest good.
The Wedding Day
We couples first assembled in the Office of the County Clerk at 4:30 pm. It was quite a scene. Past one Christian crazy holding large protest signs aloft outside processed a veritable rainbow of lesbian, gay, and transgender citizens. Interracial, inter-generational, inter-ethnic just about every category you can possibly imagine, including a gowned up Sister-of-Perpetual-Indulgence, was present.
It took awhile to get Alameda County’s computer apparatus up and running. Our online wedding certificate form still asked for the second partner’s (my) maiden name, which David loved and this damsel ignored. It was also essential to accommodate couples with advance reservations, and not push ahead because we were the City’s “chosen couples.” Thus, the actual ceremony began at least 45 minutes late.
Eventually, we arrived two-by-two at City Hall. In the Mayor’s conference room, we continued to get to know one each other before we processed into Oakland City Council Chambers. Need I say that the roar was deafening as we, the Mayor, and Barbara Lee entered the room.
The Mayor had prepared a marriage contract that thankfully omitted “’til death do us part.” When the first couple, longtime city employees Karen Boyd and Samee Roberts, vowed to honor, cherish, love and protect, Samee dispensed with “I do” and proclaimed, “Absolutely!” (Oakland is not a city of conformity). Cheers, of course. Once the Mayor declared the coule lawfully wedded under California law, the entire room erupted encore.
And so it continued. When it came our turn, couple number 7 (David’s lucky number) came forward with friends Béla and Irene and sister Janet. The thrill of being married by two of my great civil rights heroes was beyond words. Affirming the sacred bond David and I first made during our first 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 clapped while others cheered. It was the icing on the proverbial, non-hydrogenated cake.
So here we are. Our marriage is recognized, not only in California, but also in New York. Other states and countries are sure to follow. As California’s same-sex marriages continue, and more and more positive stories and images of same-sex love travel around the globe, we move one 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.”
Copyright 2008 Jason Victor Serinus. Permission must be granted for publication.