Witnesses to history recall 'Winter of Love' 20 years on

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 7, 2024
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San Francisco City Hall was awash in joy during the "Winter of Love" as a couple just married on February 15, 2004, celebrated their union. Photo: Rick Gerharter
San Francisco City Hall was awash in joy during the "Winter of Love" as a couple just married on February 15, 2004, celebrated their union. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The caterers had been hired, and friends and family assembled, on March 11, 2004 when Marin County couple Jeanne Rizzo and her longtime partner, Pali Cooper, trekked across the Golden Gate Bridge to City Hall to do something that just a month earlier had been unthinkable.

Marriage discrimination at that time was written in the laws of 49 of the 50 states (Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court found a ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in late 2003, though its ruling didn't take effect until May 17, 2004), the District of Columbia, and the United States government and its territories.

Rizzo, who said that she had been "traveling for work" on February 12, 2004, when same-sex couples started marrying in San Francisco, had secured the March appointment for the couple to wed.

As they approached City Hall that afternoon to take their vows — they'd invited some 50 friends and relatives for the occasion, including, of course, their young son Christopher — "all of a sudden we're seeing all this media go in and I thought, 'someone famous must be getting married' and they said, 'Oh, they're shutting it down,'" Rizzo recalled to the Bay Area Reporter.

The California Supreme Court had granted a stay of the marriages sought by opponents of the nuptials.

"Pali and I go running to City Hall to the clerk's office," Rizzo said. "Couples are crying, going home; they're sad. And I said to Pali, my wife, 'we have to stand there and be denied.'"

The images of the couple denied their wedding license were broadcast around the world.

"We went back to the house and we had the caterer and everyone was ready to have a party but all we did, all night, was watch ourselves on television," Rizzo said. It was then that the San Francisco-based National Centers for Lesbian Rights called, asking if the couple would be plaintiffs in a lawsuit, "which meant staying up all night filling out forms," she said.

Six months later the court voided the approximately 4,000 same-sex marriages performed in San Francisco between February 12 and March 11. It did not at that time rule on the question of the constitutionality of only allowing marriages between people of opposite sexes.

That legal issue would be the focus of the case brought by Rizzo and Cooper and other couples, with the California Supreme Court ruling in 2008 via its In re Marriage Cases decision that the state constitution was, in fact, violated by the law only allowing opposite-sex marriages.

It was also featured in Geoff Callan and Mike Shaw's 2005 documentary "Pursuit of Equality," which screened at the Castro Theatre February 2 - prior to the movie house closing for renovations - during a private party and reunion held for many of the couples who wed two decades ago. (Rizzo and Cooper were legally married after the In re Marriage Case decision, on September 5, 2008.)

The 20th anniversary of the "Winter of Love" — the month of equality where same-sex marriages were performed in the City and County of San Francisco, stirring national condemnation and worldwide hope and joy — starts this Monday. Mayor London Breed announced on Threads (https://www.threads.net/@londonbreed/post/C2yMPhzv5R-) that there will be a special event featuring couples tying the knot to commemorate the anniversary at City Hall on Valentine's Day, Wednesday, February 14.

"We have so much love to give and celebrate in this city," the mayor stated.

Couples interested in participating can sign up here.

'Chills down the spine'

Pressure on Gavin Newsom to marry same-sex couples had been building after his election as San Francisco mayor in November 2003, as the B.A.R. reported in its February 5, 2004 issue.

And as the B.A.R. first reported in its February 12, 2004 issue under the headline "SF to sanction gay marriage," Newsom two days prior had ordered then-city clerk Nancy Alfaro to figure out how to issue marriage licenses to couples of the same sex.

Ironically, Republican then-President George W. Bush had also played a role in convincing Newsom to take action on the issue. Just weeks into his mayoral tenure Newsom had attended Bush's State of the Union speech on January 20 as a guest of then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). In it the president — facing reelection — came down hard on the aforementioned Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

"I believe we should respect individuals as we take a principled stand for one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization," Bush said. "Activist judges ... have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives. On an issue of such great consequence, the people's voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."

Newsom called his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, a gay man, to discuss what steps the city could take, according to a contemporaneous San Francisco Chronicle report. It led to Newsom's administration determining the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated the state constitution's equal protection clause and instructing the clerk to take action.

Newsom, now California's governor, stood by his decision this week in a statement to the B.A.R. on February 6.

"Pursuit of Equality" directors Geoff Callan, left, and Mike Shaw welcomed Governor Gavin Newsom to a special screening celebrating the 20th anniversary of the "Winter of Love" Photo: Drew Altizer Photography  

"During the historic 'Winter of Love' in San Francisco, people of all backgrounds came together to champion human dignity," Newsom stated. "In those few weeks we learned to listen to people, not pundits; focus on fairness, not tradition; and err on the side of inclusion. We must continue to apply those lessons and stay vigilant to protect the fundamental rights that were so hard won. The actions taken by countless individuals garnered overwhelming support for equality and protections everyone deserves."

Then Assessor-Recorder Mabel Teng officiated the first marriage February 12 — of longtime lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. (Both are now deceased.) Kate Kendell, then the executive director of NCLR, was in the room.

"It was an absolutely chills-down-the-spine moment," Kendell said. "I obviously — it's well-documented — burst into tears. I felt — and everyone there felt — like we were in that very rare and privileged position of witnessing a truly history-making moment, and who gets to do that? It was electrifying."

John Lewis, a gay San Francisco man, decided to attend a Freedom to Marry Day rally at City Hall earlier that day as a way of getting more involved in the struggle for equal rights. The event had been going on for several years. After a rally on the City Hall steps, same-sex couples would go to the clerk's office and be denied marriage licenses in an effort to spotlight the discrimination.

"It was literally the first time we decided to get involved," Lewis said of himself and his now-husband, Stuart Gaffney. "Stuart had a lunch meeting at his office downtown, so we planned that I would go and would report back that evening."

When he showed up to the rally, however, Lewis heard the heretofore unthinkable news.

"Moments earlier, San Francisco had opened the door for LGBTQ couples to get married, right then," he said. "I absolutely did not believe it. I did not even own a cellphone, and fortunately, someone lent me it. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to reach [Stuart]."

Gaffney picked up the phone.

"It was the most urgent wedding proposal you ever heard," Gaffney said. "I would have loved to have a romantic dinner and some fine champagne, but this was a historic moment."

However, the excitement was punctuated by the fact that, in Gaffney's words, "we were very worried just as soon as the door opened for us to get married the door would slam shut. This was the reason it was such an urgent wedding proposal."

Gaffney went on the Muni underground and the two became among the first 10 same-sex couples married in San Francisco.

After the words were pronounced — "by virtue of the authority vested in me by the state of California, I pronounce you spouses for life" — the clerk gave the newlyweds information about pregnancy.

"It was given to us by the clerk in the most deadpan, bureaucratic voice," Lewis said. "But it meant we were being treated just like everybody else — it was deeply meaningful. Discrimination against same-sex couples had ended that day. ... It was the first time in our lives we felt our government was treating us as equal human beings, as queer people. It was transformative and it changed everything."

The Bay Area Reporter's front page for February 19, 2004 reported on the "Winter of Love." Image: Courtesy B.A.R. Archive  

'Too much, too fast, too soon'
Not everyone was so thrilled.

Former San Francisco mayor and then-U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said the whole thing was "too much, too fast, too soon." Gay then-state Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) took exception to that, remembering the late senator's remarks in a recent interview with the B.A.R.

"I thought, 'Really, senator? These are friends of yours, they waited 50 years, how much longer should they be expected to wait?'" said Leno, who at the time had introduced state legislation in support of marriage equality.

Leno had made his way to City Hall that first day and married many same-sex couples.

As it happened, the state courts were closed February 12 due to Lincoln's birthday holiday. The following day, the Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Campaign for California Families filed suit, asking for an immediate stay of the same-sex nuptials. (Prop 22 was passed by voters in 2000 and limited marriage to one man and one woman.)

But the courts were also closed Monday, February 16, due to Presidents Day. City Hall remained open all of that Valentine's Day weekend issuing marriage licenses, and on February 19 the city filed its own suit against the state, charging that prohibiting same-sex marriages violated the equal protection clause. On February 20, a San Francisco court did not issue the Prop 22 side's requested stay, meaning the marriages continued.

Jeanne Rizzo, left, and Pali Cooper spoke during a March 4, 2008 news conference before the California Supreme Court's hearing on same-sex marriages. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Legal maneuvers
Dennis Herrera, a straight ally, was San Francisco's city attorney at the time.

"I'll never forget that first Presidents Day weekend," Herrera said. "I was heading up to Napa and I drove past City Hall on the weekend and I was stunned by seeing a line around the block. I realized, 'Oh, wow, this was going to continue. This was going to be a really big deal.'"

The city's same-sex marriage litigation was overseen and successfully argued at the state level by Therese Stewart, a lesbian and Herrera's chief deputy who would be appointed by then-governor Jerry Brown to a seat on the state appeal court in 2014. In 2022, Newsom elevated Stewart to presiding justice of the 1st District Court of Appeal, Division Two, based in San Francisco. Stewart married her partner, Carole Scagnetti, in a City Hall ceremony in September 2008.

"Once it became clear the mayor was opening the doors to LGBTQ couples to allow them to marry, we at the San Francisco City Attorney's office were scrambling to prepare for the inevitable requests for temporary restraining orders that opponents of marriage equality would file to try to halt the weddings," Stewart stated. "We were intent on staving off any injunctions if we could so that the marriages could continue."

Stewart added that she and Herrera wanted the same thing as Newsom was seeking: for the world to see same-sex couples as human beings.

"What began for many as political protest became something much more personal and important," she added. "As officiants uttered the words we are all so familiar with signifying a wedding, many couples unexpectedly found themselves in tears. Hearing those words applied to themselves unleashed both grief and joy: grief from yearning for equal treatment that had so long been denied, and joy that it seemed finally within reach."

Matt Dorsey, a gay man who now represents District 6 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, served as Herrera's press liaison in 2004.

"In 2004, a lot of people pushed back on it — 'Too much, too soon' — and thought that Mayor Newsom shouldn't have done it," Dorsey said. "Having a front seat to history, I'll never forget it. ... It was the most important thing I've done in my career so far."

Dorsey said as the time went on and more marriages were performed, it took on a life of its own.

"It went from people making a statement — activists — to groups of families, especially older couples, people flying in from out of town and watching this," Dorsey said. "It was extremely moving."

Dorsey said he, too, would watch what had previously been unthinkable, and had trouble blinking back the tears.

"I would come back from lunch and go through the rotunda and watch people's weddings and I'd come back all teary and people would say 'where were you?' and I'd say 'a wedding,' and they'd ask 'who's?' and I'd say, 'I have no idea,'" Dorsey recalled.

Dorsey also remembered the office defending — for the first time — marriages for same-sex couples in court. That, too, was transformative, he said.

"We went to court the following week and made a case to the court," he said.

Lewis agreed with that assessment.

"It was a communal joy about that moment, and when I reflect back 20 years later, it was everything that's right about San Francisco, and obviously put San Francisco on the forefront of this issue worldwide," he said. "During those days in 2004, City Hall was overflowing with love. In every corner of City Hall, LGBTQ couples were getting married who never thought they could."

Jeanne Rizzo, left, son Christopher Bradshaw, and her wife Pali Cooper spoke at the "Pursuit of Equality" screening. Photo: Drew Altizer Photography  

Prop 8 and aftermath
After the marriages were shut down by the stay, Rizzo and Cooper were joined as plaintiffs by Lewis and Gaffney, and by author Jewelle Gomez and Diane Sabin, a lesbian couple who did not participate in the Winter of Love marriages.

"They needed people who had not yet gotten married because the case was built on the premise that our right to marry was taken away, since it had existed for a bit," Sabin said of the decision to join the suit. "It was certainly a major paradigm shift."

(Lewis told the B.A.R. he and his husband joined the suit after the marriages were thrown out. "At that point we were in the exact same legal situation," he said.)

Added Gomez: "We spent a good bit of the time doing press conferences. We had some social media training with NCLR and to really clarify our responses to questions so we were going to some of the court hearings and community forums to really talk about what rights you gained being legally married by the government."

Sabin said that "when you're not able to do something for a long time, you develop a lot of reasons why you wouldn't want to do it anyway."

"Who of us knew there were 1,100 federal rights bestowed upon you if you get married?" she asked. "We have responsibilities, and so we should have the full rights everyone in the culture has."

Despite the California Supreme Court ruling, which saw the resumption of same-sex marriages for about five months, California voters amended the state Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage in November 2008, with Proposition 8. That, too, was challenged in court during a federal trial in 2010 that declared Prop 8 unconstitutional. (Then-federal judge Vaughn Walker presided over that trial and publicly came out as gay afterward.)

After appealing to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the court ruling vacating Prop 8 to go into effect, determining those defending the proposition lacked standing to appeal. (Under then-state attorney general Kamala Harris, the state of California would not defend Prop 8 against the suit. Harris is now vice president.) Two years later, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory laws of the states that had not, on their own, legalized same-sex marriage.

The fact that same-sex marriage is legal in California only by court order is something advocates are trying to remedy this November with a ballot proposition removing the unenforceable, or "zombie," Prop 8 language from the state constitution. The Assembly Constitutional Amendment was passed by the Legislature last year, clearing the way for voters to decide the issue this fall. Backers of it officially launched their Freedom to Marry campaign Wednesday.

Leno wishes then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed his marriage bill, which the Republican governor vetoed twice, that would have changed state law before the In re Marriage Cases ruling.

"All of this would have changed the course of history if he had signed it," Leno said. "The dynamic would have been we would have a Republican governor defending his signature, and I believe we would have won at the ballot."

But victory was by no means assured in those heady days 20 years ago — Newsom was blamed when Bush, running on a nationwide ban on same-sex marriage, beat his Democratic challenger then-senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), and exit polls showed "moral values" was the largest single issue for voters in exit polls, NBC News reported (https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna6531772). Kerry supported same-sex civil unions, but not marriage, at the time.

Still, "in hindsight, it accelerated the trajectory for winning marriage nationwide," Kendell said. Just two years ago, President Joe Biden signed a law codifying same-sex marriage rights — with bipartisan support.

"It was without a doubt the most exhilarating chapter of my career," Kendell said.

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