Win Anderson and partner Carlos Guzman would have been perfectly content to consider their Feb. 28 wedding at the Hotel del Coronado the crowning achievement in their eight-year relationship.
But then George W. Bush had to go and let loose these words from his puckered presidential puss: "If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America.... Today, I call for the Congress to promptly pass and send to the states for ratification an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and woman, as husband and wife."
For Anderson, Guzman and political activists both gay and straight, the President's blast across the bow over same-sex marriage was the shot heard 'round the world, a galvanizing moment of realization that this president had just declared war against a significant-and politically potent-segment of American society.
"I joke about this," said Anderson, his hand gently stroking the head of his three-legged dog, Pogo, one recent morning at the couple's stylish Mission Hills home, "but I have to thank President Bush in that regard. He took an issue that was in the dark and shadows, and he made it glaringly clear that right now the level of discrimination is tremendous."
With a nervous chuckle and choked-back tears, the real-estate attorney added, "By proposing to institutionalize this as a constitutional amendment... I laugh because it's really frightening. The idea that you would put prejudice in the constitution-"
Anderson's voice trailed off, but the hurt was palpable, most certainly much like the feeling felt by mixed-race couples a generation ago who were similarly banned from making the ultimate commitment to their significant others. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that ban as unconstitutional, asserting that marriage is one of the country's "vital personal rights" that is "essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by a free people."
"Sixteen states still had bans on interracial marriage at that point," sighed local ACLU spokesperson Dale Kelly Bankhead, who also co-chairs a newly formed group, San Diegans Against Marriage Discrimination. "Traditions die hard. But now we look back at that, and it seems unbelievable that that would be prohibited in this country."
So, instead of just sitting back with the memories of the Hotel del, Anderson and Guzman decided to do what thousands of other gay and lesbian couples had already chosen to do-they got hitched in San Francisco, ground zero in the nation's marriage-equality battle.
"Obviously, what happened in San Francisco is hotly debated right now, but we felt it was very important to send a message," Anderson said.
What happened in San Francisco was Mayor Gavin Newsom. Fueled by President Bush's statement during the State of the Union address in late January that marriage should be between a man and a woman, Newsom created a firestorm of debate only a month into his new administration by ordering the city clerk there to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"I do not believe it's appropriate for me, as mayor of San Francisco, to discriminate against people," Newsom told reporters at the time. "And if that means my political career ends, then so be it." He was vilified by some for violating the law, considered a hero by others.
A month later, the California Supreme Court would step in to halt the practice, but not before nearly 4,200 same-sex couples like Anderson and Guzman had been issued marriage licenses. Hearings on the matter are expected to begin next month, but what Newsom started has reverberated across the nation and inspired similar efforts in New Mexico, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Marriage-equality proponents argue that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying violates the equal-protection rights afforded under the state's constitution. And while the state Supreme Court's upcoming hearings on the issue won't specifically address that argument-it will consider San Francisco's actions only-Bankhead said the court invited a challenge to the ban's constitutionality.
"So, naturally we took them up on the challenge," Bankhead said, noting that the ACLU has filed suit raising the equal-protection question.
In San Diego, a groundswell is just beginning to take shape over same-sex equality. Just last month, about 100 people attended a marriage-equality rally at the steps of the County Administration Building downtown, where activists on bullhorns urged listeners to take a stand against discrimination. M.E. Stephens, a local attorney and ACLU board member who spoke at the rally, said the support that day must be tempered with the reality that she frequently encounters.
Only a few days ago, Stephens sat on a panel at Southwestern College with same-sex-marriage opponents, one of whom, she said, "used that same ancient rhetoric, suggesting that AIDS is a gay disease, that being gay is bad for you because it shortens your lifespan, that gays are alcoholic drug abusers who often have schizophrenia, no moral compass, and don't know they're sick."
That there are still people out there living with pre-1973 attitudes-that's the year the American Psychological Association stopped regarding homosexuality as a mental disorder-doesn't surprise Stephens.
"Unfortunately, they haven't come into the new millennium yet," said Stephens, who married her partner in 1997. But she, like many gays and lesbians, are quick to add that they never imagined that marriage equality would be a front-burner issue during their lifetime.
So, why the sudden shift? While a good deal of credit can be given to Bush, some props are also due the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, which last June ruled in a Texas case that sodomy laws are unconstitutional. The 6-3 decision in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas swept away the remnants of legal interpretations that equated homosexuality with a crime.
"It said your conduct, at least as far as the law is concerned, can't be characterized as criminal," Stephens said. "That was a sweeping change. It makes people inclined to be "out' at work, to tell their families. Prior to Lawrence, it gave people a legal basis for the rhetoric, like the drivel I had to listen to the other day."
And yet, the arguments against marriage equality for gays and lesbians seem frozen in another bygone era of Ozzie and Harriet, nuclear families and stay-home moms.
Marriage Equality California, a nonprofit group seeking the end to marriage discrimination, maintains a list on its web site of the opposition's most common arguments against same-sex matrimony and the group's response. Here's a sampling:
* Gay marriage will harm the traditional family-"Says who? Name a study that gives documented evidence of this harm; such a study does not exist. European countries that have given massive legal recognition to same-sex relationships have reported no harm to families."
* The Bible says marriage is between one man and one woman-"Marriage is a government institution that grants hundreds of legal rights. When people go to a county clerk's office and pay a fee for a marriage license, what role does religion play? NONE. Our country is not a theocracy."
* If we legalize gay marriage, what next? Marriage between three people? Marriage between a man and a dog?-"Personal favorite. This is when you get to point out that your opponent just compared homosexuals to animals. This is a window into the soul of a bigot."
* We need to preserve the sanctity of marriage-"PLEASE. When Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell said "I do' on "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?' the whole sanctity-of-marriage garbage went out the window.... If people want to preserve the sanctity of marriage, try getting heterosexuals to stay married, try getting men to raise their children, and try getting men to stop beating their wives."
Anderson, who can quote chapter and verse as easily from the Bible as from state law, said opponents are hypocritical to use the Bible as a weapon against people they don't know. "The Bible has a great deal more to say about women and divorce than it does about homosexuality," he said, explaining that the New Testament contains five passages that deal with homosexual behavior. "Jesus never had a thing to say about homosexuals, but he did say that divorce is a sin. That anybody who engages in any sexual activity after a divorce is committing adultery, and adultery is a mortal sin. Now somehow, we've been able to take these words and say that's not exactly what he meant."
Women also shouldn't be educated, nor speak first, nor wear jewelry, if the New Testament is to be taken in its literal context, Anderson added.
For Anderson's partner, Carlos Guzman, a commodities manager, the fight over marriage seems such a fruitless one, particularly in such challenging times. As a kid growing up gay, Guzman said he never dreamed that he'd have the opportunity to marry, as he and Anderson did in San Francisco on March 2, just days after their Hotel del ceremony with family and friends.
"At the time, I thought I was going to get married to a woman, then lead a closeted life," he said. But as he grew comfortable with being gay, he realized such a path "would be foolish."
When San Francisco was busy issuing marriage licenses and the media's lens was focused intently on the left-coast city, the most frequent image seemed to be of people smiling. As for San Diego issuing marriage licenses, activists seem to agree that a town this conservative won't budge on the subject until Prop. 22, the law passed by California voters in 2000 that forbids the state from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states, is ruled unconstitutional.
Gay activists, however, are hopeful about the future, noting that recent polls show a majority of young voters backing marriage equality. "San Diego wants desperately to be a 21st-century city, and we're there," the ACLU's Stephens said. "We're standing right on the cusp of that, and we need only make the commitment to equality to get there."
The only obstacle, she said, is fear. "That's one of the things for me that makes it so shocking that a president would do that," Stephens said about the constitutional-amendment proposal. "If there's one thing that you don't want your president to be, that's somebody who's fearful."I really do believe for heterosexual men and women, we will be far more liberated, far more compassionate, if we make room for people to be who they are and not force them into gender roles that don't feel comfortable. There's a zillion reasons why people fall in love, and it's no different for me."