Looking Back over One Year: A Photographic Remembrance of San Francisco's Same-Sex Marriage Revolt

The date was March 10, 2004. I had just finished writing a column (Comes Naturally #146 -- about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's momentous declaration -- directing San Francisco's County Clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. My editor wanted some photos that he could publish with the column.

I didn't expect my photo-taking expedition to be any big deal. It had been almost a month since February 12, the day that Newsom performed his act of municipal civil disobedience. Over four thousand same-sex marriage licenses had been issued, media from around the world had spent weeks swarming over San Francisco, covering what seemed to be every conceivable nuance, public relations angle, human interest story, and political viewpoint related to the event and the cataclysm of controversy that Newsom stirred up. Surely, I thought, after a full month of media blitz, the wind would be long gone from these sails. I imagined snapping a few mundane pictures of couples filling out application forms. They would be boring photos, I admitted to myself, but better than nothing at all. At least they would provide some visual imagery for what I had written.

As soon as I walked into the magnificent rotunda that forms the lobby of San Francisco's classic 19th-century center of government it was obvious that what was going on there had nothing whatever to do with government-business-as-usual.

A loud cheer and a burst of jubilant applause jumped out to greet me just as I entered the main lobby. Looking up I saw a small crowd assembled at the top of the sweeping staircase that connects the main rotunda to a broad balcony on the building's second floor. Two women stood in front of some twenty or thirty people, holding hands, beaming at one another, flanked by what I took to be their two sons -- one in his mid teens, the other perhaps eight years old -- both grinning, both bearing bouquets of tulips. A city clerk was pronouncing the two women partners for life, her quiet voice echoing slightly off the stone walls and polished marble floor. A television cameraman stood to one side, hefty videocam on his shoulder. His sound tech held a microphone on a long boom, arching over the well-wishers to catch the two women pronouncing the magic words, "I do," and the crowd bursting again into happy cheers.

At the foot of the stairs, a second group of people sat and stood off to one side, adjusting dresses and flowers, fidgeting, talking in low tones, waiting for their turn. As the first wedding party dispersed, stopping at the foot of the stairs to pose for a few last pictures, the second group took their place at the top, coalescing into its own tight cluster -- young boys with slicked down hair in suits and ties, girls in fancy dresses holding flowers, friends and parents leaning close to hear simple vows uttered in the most ceremonial of settings.

I looked around the broad expanse of the rotunda, only gradually understanding the scope of what was happening around me. There were, I realized, two, three, four, a dozen different couples, in the process of getting married -- couples everywhere, taking advantage of every possible ornate location to perform their rituals of union.

And there were, it seemed, virtually an unlimited number of ceremonial possibilities, It was as if city hall had been designed precisely to accommodate mass, multiple, simultaneous wedding ceremonies. There was something for everyone -- locations like the central staircase that were grand and spacious, others like the little rotundas tucked under balconies and in the corners that were delightfully small and intimate. There were sweeping gilded banisters, pillars or all descriptions, large walls of smooth stone, and a fresco of muscular, nude Adonises flanking the Seal of the Great City of San Francisco. It was an opportunity for ritual creativity, and the people getting married in city hall that day were making the most of it.

In one small rotunda, off to the side of the main balcony area, two men in jet black tuxedos had placed themselves at the exact center of the circular pattern in the marble floor, accompanied by only a clerk and four friends. One recited his vows to the other, reading from a large white sheet of paper. Looking down on the scene from a balcony above, I could barely hear what the man was saying, but his muffled words sounded vaguely familiar. I listened again and realized he was reading the Gettysburg Address.

When the two men finished, descending the central staircase, arm in arm, marriage certificate in hand, two women took their place in the cozy alcove. Looking past them, across the central courtyard, I saw a group of people posing for pictures on a third-floor balcony -- the elaborate gold and black, filigreed railing providing an elegant backdrop.

I began to wander, finding one after another hidden location where someone was getting married. Looking down from a balcony to the main floor below, I saw a couple looking around tentatively. One of the county clerks (working entirely as volunteers, I was told) introduced herself and offered to perform their marriage. "Where should we go?" one of the women asked. "Anywhere you like," the clerk offered with a broad smile. "Some people like to be on the balcony," she suggested, pointing up to the third floor. "Some like it down here on the main floor. Would you like to be out in the open? Or in a place a little more private?" More than a little overwhelmed, the two women decided to stay right where they are. I watched the clerk open her registry, enter their names, say the words that make civil marriages into legal contracts..

I took the elevator up to the fourth floor, crawled out on a ledge overlooking the hall's wide open space, admired the kaleidoscope of wedding parties that shifted and morphed in slow motion -- one group dissolving in laughter and hugs while another moved closer together to hear what was being said, and yet another assembled for commemorative photographs. One group is formal, almost solemn. Another is casual, jovial, boisterous. Here there are tuxedos, veils, and long dresses, across the way it's all T-shirts and jeans. Lots of flowers. Lots of children.

The collective impact of scene after scene completely blew me away. I was there as a journalist, an anthropologist, looking for nothing more than some pictures to go with my column, pictures to document this moment in history. But for each of these couples, this was the day of their wedding, the wedding they never thought they would be able to have, the wedding doomed to be invalidated in short order, but their wedding nevertheless. Going to just one wedding is a powerful experience for me, something that invariably stirs up a strange mix of joy, sadness, satisfaction, longing, appreciation, uncertainty. Attending over a dozen weddings little more than an hour was enough to completely pull the ground right out from under my feet. No matter that all these people were strangers to me -- the power of their joy, of joy triumphant, however momentarily, over prejudice and limitation, was nothing short of inspirational.

For well over an hour I wandered from wedding to wedding, soaking in the celebration, the relief, the gratitude of people who never thought they would have an opportunity to commemorate their love in this way. Everyone knew, of course, that the ultimate legality of these marriages was tenuous at best. And, looking back from the vantage point of a year's political developments, it's even possible that the backlash against Gavin Newsom's act of municipal revolt played a role in putting George Bush back in the White House for another four years.

But in San Francisco during that month in early 2004, what mattered was that a free space had been created within which it was possible to proclaim and affirm something that should be the most simple and basic of human emotions, but that had become, in a world crazy with politics and prejudice, a complex and contorted tangle. So much love, so much longing, so much hope, so much gratitude, bouncing off the stone walls of government formality. If buildings are infused with the energy of what happens inside them, San Francisco City Hall is going to be radiating the glory of love unbound for years to come.

So now, one year later, in recognition of the spirit of that time, and of all the momentous politics that have occurred between then and now, I want to offer a small portfolio of photos that I took in San Francisco City Hall that day -- March 10, 2004 -- what turned out to be the last day that same-sex marriage licenses were issued in San Francisco. On March 11, 2004, the California Supreme Court intervened and ordered the city to cease and desist from issuing marriage licenses to couples of the same sex.

There are 21 photos, posted as individual files, each with its own URL. the first is at, the last at Enter successive numbers (SSM2, SSM3, etc.) in the URL to see the complete portfolio.

© 2008 David Steinberg  

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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": .


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