During their seven-year relationship, San Diego residents Rodney von Jaeger and John Kussmann, both 37, have taken every opportunity to demonstrate to the world the seriousness of their mutual commitment. In 2001, the two held a commitment ceremony before family and friends, and last year, they registered as domestic partners in accordance with recently passed California legislation. Obtaining a government-endorsed marriage, however, has been forbidden to them.
Then on Feb. 12, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered his county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, opening a window of opportunity for hundreds of couples like von Jaeger and Kussmann. San Francisco's City Hall remained open throughout the entire Presidents' Day weekend to accommodate an estimated 1,650 same-sex couples who married immediately after receiving the official paperwork.
The Associated Press reported that Newsom, 36, was "disturbed" by statements made during George W. Bush's Jan. 20 State of the Union speech that reflected a negative stance toward the possibility of legal matrimony for same-sex couples.
Challenging California legislative language dictating that only marriage between a man and a woman can be recognized by the state, Newsom told CNN, "We are reading the direct language within the state constitution, and we directed our county clerk to do the right thing and extend the privilege that's extended to my wife and myself and millions of us across the country to same-sex couples."
But even as Kussmann and von Jaeger followed news reports that the controversial marriages were being conducted last Thursday and Friday, the couple was convinced that the unprecedented events unfolding in San Francisco would be quashed by opponents.
In a Feb. 13 statement, the Alliance Defense Fund called Newsom's actions "sheer unfettered anarchy." The group announced it would file a lawsuit against the city and county of San Francisco, Newsom and County Clerk Nancy Alfaro "for violating state law and allowing the "marriage' of same-sex couples in illegal ceremonies" and requested "an immediate stay of the clerk's issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples."
Also on Feb. 13, the Campaign for California Families announced a separate suit in which it sought to prevent "renegade mayor" Newsom from issuing "unlawful certificates of marriage" and to "dissolve the invalid certificates issued this week."
When it was decided that the San Francisco Superior Court would hear neither action until Feb. 17, von Jaeger and Kussmann didn't waste any time.
Soon after von Jaeger returned home from work on Friday evening, the couple decided to get themselves to San Francisco as quickly as possible in the hope of obtaining a marriage license on the morning of Feb. 14.
After hastily throwing a few necessities together, they drove nonstop, making their destination by 3 a.m. Five hours later, they joined a line in front of City Hall that already numbered nearly 200 applicants. As the morning wore on, hopeful couples continued to converge on the location by the hundreds.
"Everybody was very jubilant and excited," Kussmann said. "Cars were driving by honking their horns in support. People were waving at us and cheering us on."
According to von Jaeger, many of the other couples they met at City Hall had also been eagerly awaiting the chance to legally wed-in some cases, for many decades. "John and I are young enough that we felt-whether we're naïve or not-that we would have the chance sometime in our life," he added. "But many of the people who were older than us, you could tell that they [had] really felt like they would never have the chance in their lifetimes."
After filling out the necessary paperwork and receiving their marriage license, von Jaeger and Kussmann went up to an area within City Hall where a small army of city-worker volunteers were performing marriage ceremonies. "At any given time there were four or five marriages going on at the same time," Kussmann said.
About four hours after von Jaeger and Kussmann arrived at City Hall, they left the building a married couple.
"As soon as we got out, we both called our parents and families and let them know that we had done this legally," said von Jaeger, who described his mother as "overjoyed and really happy for us." Nevertheless, he laughed good-naturedly when he recalled her first question for him: When they filled out the paperwork, who was the husband and who was the wife? "We let her know that they actually changed the paperwork so it says "Applicant 1' and "Applicant 2.'"
Acknowledging that the validity of the hundreds of marriages performed last weekend will face many challenges, Kussmann said, "I don't know what the outcome is going to be, and ultimately they may be voided.
But even if they are, he added, "the excitement of being a part of something like this is not something that can be taken away."