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Equality Forum: The International Equality Dinner Starring the One and Only Gavin Newsom

Talk about your gala events! 

Well, for $200 a plate, Saturday night’s International Equality Dinner needed to be a fabulous, star-studded affair, and it was. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a true ally of the gay and lesbian community since forever, was Honorary Chair and delivered his usually warm, amusing, and affirming speech. With no elections left to contest, Rendell was even more forthright than usual — and that’s something. But no one wants to talk about him, or even about The New York Times Company, winner of Equality Forum’s 7th Annual Business Leadership Award. This is an honor the Times richly deserves for: its fair and extensive coverage of our issues; its pioneering inclusion of same-sex unions on its “Weddings” pages several years ago; and the stalwart support of the LGBT community from such columnists as the Pulitzer-Prize winning Maureen Dowd and the known homophile Frank Rich. (Read this, if you haven’t already.)

The dinner also featured an open bar, great food (how, with so many people?), impressive videos by and about EF, and a huge and friendly crowd. But these aren’t the story, either.

No, it’s all about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a true rock star of the LGBT movement. You could have heard a mozzarella ball drop during Mr. Charisma’s inspiring keynote address. But first let’s back up twenty-four hours.

On Friday night, I attended a screening of Pursuit of Equality, a documentary that focuses on Newsom and the “marriage month” that took place, by his direction, in San Francisco in early 2004. The film, produced and co-directed by Geoff Callan, Newsom’s brother-in-law, can be criticized as hagiography, but it captures and holds for posterity the vertiginous emotional journey of all involved: the mayor and his committed staff; the Repent America joes who camped out at City Hall in protest at what was going on; and, of course, the couples who traveled from (as the Mayor is liable to repeat) forty-eight states to become the first same-sex couples to marry, only to have their unions voided by the California Supreme Court.1

The film reminded me of the inspiration for Newsom’s act of civil disobedience (the best label for it, really). Just after taking office, he’d been invited by fellow Californian and now Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to attend the 2004 State of the Union address. The now (mercifully) Ex-President cooked up a stew of inane “priority items”: steroid use in baseball (I can’t make this up); the need for abstinence-only education; and, critically, the imagined urgency of passing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage unions.

This wasn’t the America Newsom wanted any part of. In my interview with him, he credited his Catholic school education for implanting in him the simple dictum that couldn’t abide this divisiveness: “When one suffers, we all suffer.” Almost immediately upon his return from D.C., he asked his clerks what it would take to change the form to accommodate same-gender couples, and it was, well, almost nothing. (Are you reading this, Social Security Administration?) By then in office for just more than a month, Newsom allowed the Gay Marriage Parade to begin; the Grand Marshals were Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, lesbian pioneers who’d been together more than fifty years. (The film captures Lyon’s terrific sense of humor; when given the standard counseling for newlyweds about family planning, the septuagenarian doubles over laughing.)

Within a few days, San Francisco was mecca for many long-term, committed gay couples. By homing in on a few couples, the filmmakers capture their sheer joy and disbelief at the dignity they’ve just been able to seize. Of course, that joy turned “to bitterest wormwood” (to quote the Mighty Thor) when the California Supreme Court put a stop to the party about a month later. In a strange and unsettling sequence, the film captures a lesbian couple running down the hall in a doomed effort to get their marriage licenses before word of the order reached the clerk. Confronted with a sign telling them they were too late, they performed the remarkable act of remaining in line and being denied. Other couples are seen reading the court’s decision, having it sink it, and — losing it.

Watching these emotional flame-outs, I felt compelled to ask the mayor on Saturday whether these reactions — which one can understand only so deeply, if not directly affected — had made him question his strategy. After all, he knew the likely outcome of this bold Experiment in Equality. Newsom, as articulate and comfortable a speaker as it’s possible to find, answered by sharing his view of the affirming side of it: “People left City Hall with a deeper sense of self and purpose. For that moment, they knew what it felt to be treated with dignity.”

Then I asked Newsom whether he felt he’d done enough to let people know what might happen. “I think people came in with their eyes wide open. They recognized that they were challenging the law, and were there to make a statement, to advance a principle.” He added that he hadn’t received a single email or letter from people saying “How dare you?”

I was using my few questions to gain some measure of Mayor Newsom’s depth and understanding of the issue’s layers, and I came away from the interview and the speech that followed convinced that he really does “get it.”

“Activist courts”? He wants more of ‘em, basically. Imagine what would  have happened in 1967 had we allowed a popular vote on interracial marriage. 70% of the population was opposed to it. The history of civil rights, he noted, is “hardly the majority celebrating the minority. No. Courts protect the minority in a constitutional democracy.”

In case you’re sighing impatiently at this elementary civics lesson, it’s worth remembering that equality opponents don’t acknowledge these points when it comes to this issue.

What about civil unions as some kind of compromise that might appeal to a politician with good instincts but a healthy sense of self-preservation (even more so in 2004)? After all, Newsom is now running for Governor of California. If anything, his view of this “virtual equality” substitute is more contemptuous than his take on those who oppose any and all gay rights. At least the latter group is consistent. Civil unions are “separate but equal.” He is unimpressed by events commemorating the 55th anniversary of  Brown v. Board of Education, where speakers “wax eloquent” about equality and the overdue  demise of  the “separate but equal” doctrine, only to embrace that same expedient when marriage equality is the issue.

Newsom, a “fifth generation Californian”  is impatient with his home state on this issue. “I never thought I’d say this,” he concluded, but “as Iowa goes, so goes the nation.”

  1. Many of these couples remarried after the California Supreme Court declared the law banning same-sex marriages unconstitutional. Will their marriages again be voided? I very much doubt it, but we’ll know within a few weeks.
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