Newsom, in SF visit, pledges 'whatever I can do' for same-sex marriage initiative

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday June 7, 2024
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California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke at Manny's in San Francisco Friday, June 7, to help kick off the campaign to repeal Proposition 8's homophobic language from the state constitution. Photo: Rick Gerharter
California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke at Manny's in San Francisco Friday, June 7, to help kick off the campaign to repeal Proposition 8's homophobic language from the state constitution. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The campaign to enshrine same-sex marriage in California's constitution got a boost Friday, when Governor Gavin Newsom stopped in San Francisco to promote the November ballot initiative. Newsom told the Bay Area Reporter that he'll do "whatever I can do" to help the Freedom to Marry initiative pass this fall.

"I'm pleased to see the bipartisan support in the Legislature, a good sign, this being on the November ballot," Newsom said. "So I think there'll be a big turnout and I'm encouraged by that. I'll be out a lot trying to get people out to vote and, by definition, I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in it."

The B.A.R. caught up with Newsom at the Northern California launch of the effort to pass Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, which would strike the "zombie" language of the old Proposition 8 from the state Constitution. Also on Friday, Newsom officially declared the November 5 statewide election where the ballot will include the marriage equality measure along with other statewide propositions, the presidential race, the contest for one of California's U.S. Senate seats, and myriad state legislative seats and local elected positions.

The same-sex marriage ballot measure has yet to receive its official number for the ballot. Dubbed for now the Freedom to Marry Ballot Initiative, the June 7 Bay Area rollout of the effort to pass it was the third such event in recent months. A virtual launch took place in February, as the B.A.R. reported, and an in-person kickoff was held in Southern California in May.

It stems from voters passing nearly 16 years ago Proposition 8, the homophobic statewide ballot measure that defined marriage as being solely between a man and a woman under California law. Prop 8 was declared unconstitutional following a 2010 federal trial. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling by then-federal judge Vaughan Walker, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the appellate decision in 2013, with same-sex marriages resuming in the Golden State that June. (Walker, who has since retired, publicly came out as gay after the trial.)

Two years later, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges.

But the issue of the Prop 8 language, which remains embedded in the state's governing document, was raised in 2022 due to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion. In a concurring opinion in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested precedent on issues ranging from contraception to sodomy laws to same-sex marriage could be changed.

"In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court's substantive due process precedents, including Griswold [contraception], Lawrence [sexual relations between same-sex couples], and Obergefell [same-sex marriage]," Thomas wrote. "Because any substantive due process decision is 'demonstrably erroneous,' we have a duty to 'correct the error' established in those precedents."

That sparked concern among LGBTQ advocates. Last year, gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino) and gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) authored Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 to remove the homophobic anti-same-sex marriage language. It passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, showing how much the ground has shifted in the marriage equality movement.

At its recent state convention, the California Republican Party decided to remain neutral on the Freedom to Marry initiative.

Newsom, of course, presided over the first same-sex marriages in California during 2004's Winter of Love, shortly after he became mayor and he ordered city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Newsom alluded to that history during his appearance at Manny's, a gay-owned cafe and event space in the Mission district.

"I have a little history, as you may know, on this issue, going back 20 years," he said. "Been a big part of my journey and the journey of millions and millions of others, and we want to see this to completion, we want to see this to fruition, and get this stain off our constitution and this Freedom to Marry initiative will do just that."

Following Newsom's actions two decades ago, same-sex marriage was tied up in the state courts. Those 2004 nuptials were voided but, in May 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that another anti-same-sex initiative, Proposition 22, was unconstitutional, opening the door to marriage equality for several months. Opponents gathered signatures to place Prop 8 on the November ballot that year.

Appearing with Newsom were Wiener and Low. Wiener noted how unpopular same-sex marriage had been in the heady days of the 2000s.

"Marriage equality right now is a bit like mom-and-apple pie. We even have some Republicans who support it. That was not the case back then," Wiener recalled. "It was not the easy thing to do back then and, as the governor no doubt remembers, there were ramifications for that decision. There were national Democrats who didn't want to be photographed with Mayor Newsom after he made that decision."

Even local Democrats had issues — the late California senator Dianne Feinstein, also a former San Francisco mayor, famously opined the whole thing was "too much, too fast, too soon." (Feinstein died last September.)

Low, who is in a runoff for a South Bay seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, agreed that "it's important to reflect on where we're coming from and where we're going."

"That [Prop 8] is a stain on our Constitution," Low said. "That language is a stain on our California Constitution."

He said of the conservatives on the Supreme Court, "if they show you who they are, we need to believe them."

"They weren't just done with reproductive freedom," Low added. "They're coming for all of us."

Campaign coalition

Underscoring that point, Jodi Hicks, CEO and president of the Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, touched on the Dobbs decision in her remarks, saying, "if the Supreme Court is willing to overturn 50 years of precedent, it's no longer safe to assume LGBTQ rights, even interracial marriage, won't be under attack."

Hicks brought up California Proposition 1, which passed 67%-33% back in 2022 shortly after Dobbs, enshrining the right to an abortion in the state constitution.

"California always leads by example," Hicks said. "It's why we're so proud to be here."

Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ rights organization, is helping lead the effort to repeal the Prop 8 language. Representatives were at the event, but didn't give prepared remarks. San Francisco Mayor London Breed was there but didn't speak.

In a statement, EQCA Executive Director Tony Hoang, a gay man, noted, "Our state should always protect fundamental civil rights for all people and fight discrimination wherever it exists. Your freedom to marry is on the ballot in November. Let's show the rest of the country that California continues to lead the nation on protecting freedom and advancing equality."

An EQCA spokesperson stated $400,000 has been raised thus far to spend on the campaign. The amount spent thus far has been marginal but a figure is forthcoming.

Newsom talked about interracial marriage in his remarks — telling the story behind Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down as unconstitutional the anti-miscegenation laws of 16 states.

Judges "used religious constructs to incarcerate" people for interracial marriage, he said, recalling arguments made at the time that races were placed by God on separate continents to prevent miscegenation.

"Fast-forward half a century later, here we are in 2024, and we are not experiencing a rights expansion, we're experiencing a rights regression," Newsom said. "And states are at the forefront of these rights battles. ... This is real, and let's not lull ourselves to sleep that we are the victims of these circumstances."

Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), a lesbian and former president pro tempore of the California State Senate who's a candidate to replace Newsom in 2026, said that it was Newsom first standing up for same-sex marriage back in 2004 that paved the way for her own marriage to her wife, Jennifer LeSar. They married in 2008, during the time it was briefly legal statewide before Prop 8 was passed.

"We wouldn't be where we are today without his courageous leadership," Atkins said of Newsom.

She said she remembered officiating 18 marriages during the time in 2008 same-sex marriage was legal, which she termed the "Summer of Love."

"We attended weddings — sometimes multiple weddings — every weekend," she said.

"That summer was full of love and hope for our community," she added, but seeing another Winter of Love was destroyed by Prop 8.

"It told us our neighbors didn't think our love was as valid as theirs," Atkins said.

Updated, 6/7/24: This article has been updated with comments from EQCA.

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