As the country races to the inevitable day when marriage equality is the law of the land, most of the focus has been on the plaintiffs and celebrity lawyers who have led the legal challenge to marriage bans. Lost in the shuffle has been the man who actually did something when marriage equality still seemed a faraway dream: Gavin Newsom.
As the dashing and telegenic mayor of San Francisco in 2004, Newsom simply decided to do the right thing. He declared that the city should issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples. The subsequent outpouring of joy from lesbian and gay couples — and handwringing from other politicians — changed the landscape forever. Here are five reasons why Newsom deserves to be in the front ranks of heroes when the history of marriage equality is written.
1. Newsom made marriage equality a reality for the first time.
Up until 2004, marriage equality was largely a theoretical debate. The issue had been debated in Hawaii in the 1990s, and courts in New England were grappling with it. But the actual first same-sex marriages were still three months away (in Massachusetts) when Newsom decided that the city should start issuing marriage licenses. Suddenly, the theoretical became very real, very fast.
2. San Francisco showed the nation how much same-sex couples wanted to be married.
Newsom has said that he surprised at how many people showed up for marriage licenses. In the month until a court stopped the city from issuing more, more than 4,000 couples wedded. They weren’t all San Franciscans either. People flew in from around the country for the opportunity of having their relationships legally recognized. Newsom’s move proved that there was a pent-up demand for marriage equality. Newsom helped put a face on gay marriage in a way that no one had ever seen before.
3. He forced the issue within the Democratic Party.
A lot of professional Democrats, including openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, lambasted Newsom for being too bold and for contributing to John Kerry loss against incumbent George W. Bush. (Kerry was perfectly capable of losing on his own, but Bush used gay marriage to mobilize evangelical voters.) Democrats being what they are, they immediately ran to hide in the nearest cave for fear of backlash. But there was no getting around the fact that one of their own had started the party’s long evolution toward marriage equality.
4. He staked his career on his decision.
Sure, it’s easy to conclude that the mayor of San Francisco wouldn’t face much backlash for handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But Newsom is an ambitious politician, and San Francisco City Hall was not his final destination. Newsom said that “I was reasonably convinced” that he had effectively ended his career. He had barely won election in the first place, and a recall campaign was not out of the question. For someone with statewide or national goals, the move was potentially the kiss of death.
5. He paved the way for all those attorney generals who now won’t defend marriage bans.
Attorneys general in a number of states, including Kentucky, Oregon, Virginia, have decided that being on the right side of history is more important than defending an unjust law. In essence, those AGs are saying that some principles transcend what’s on the books. Newsom reached that same conclusion, but a decade earlier. You could say he took the law into his own hands, which is what critics said at the time. Or you could say that he refused to recognize laws that are inherently unjust. That’s the way the debate is framed now, and it should be applied retroactively.
Newsom is now the lieutenant governor of California, and if there was any damage to his career, it was from the revelation in 2007 that he had had an affair with the wife of his campaign manager. There is no denying that San Francisco’s marriages led directly to Proposition 8 being on the 2008 ballot (though let’s not forget that the state Supreme Court sided with Newsom). But you can’t blame Newsom for the measure passing at a time when Barack Obama was overwhelmingly carrying the state in the same election.
Historians will debate whether Newsom’s decision was too bold, too soon. But sometimes boldness is needed to prove the point. And as time passes, it looks more and more like Newsom had it right all along. The backlash, though real, proved relatively short-lived. What has lasted is the growing acceptance that marriage equality is a right. That’s something Gavin Newsom recognized long before it was popular. For that he deserves a lot of credit for our current success.
Gavin Newsom for President. You heard it here first.