Thirteen years ago I was attending a gay church service when I saw Damon walk in.
He was an attractive, conservatively dressed, fresh-faced black man of twenty-two. With his excellent posture, serious expression and weathered old Bible he looked like a young preacher. Considering four churches were at the same intersection, all I could think was “OMG HE’S IN THE WRONG CHURCH!”
It was three weeks before the LGBT Pride celebrations, and the service was even gayer than normal but he kept sitting there, so I figured he knew where he was. When service let out I hopped and elbowed my way up the isle so I’d exit at the same moment as he. “Hi I’m Chris,” I said as I shook his hand. I invited him to stay for the potluck, but he politely declined. I assumed he wasn’t interested, and didn’t think anything more about it.
He attended the next three services, I found out later, looking for me, but I wasn’t around. Then came Pride Sunday. I was working a booth when I saw him in the crowd. “Damon!” I yell. I’m horrible with names, but I remembered his.
He walked over, dressed more casually than last time, but still very well put together, and we had one of those conversations where the butterflies drown out anything the other person is saying. He took off his mirrored sunglasses and asked if I’d like to go out sometime.
Four years later, in 2004, we found ourselves living one mile away from San Francisco City Hall when Mayor Gavin Newsom surprised everyone by ordering city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was cold and dreary out, but couples from around the world came to wait in the rain for the opportunity to get married. But not us. Damon had a cold, and we correctly figured the marriages would be nullified.
The decision not to participate in that historical moment was always something we regretted. We ended up moving around the country for five years before returning to California and waiting out Prop 8, which repealed California’s new-found legalization of same-sex marriages in 2008.
I was optimistic Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) would fall, and expected to be excited. But when the rulings came down from the Supreme Court last Wednesday, and I read Justice Kennedy’s decision, saying, “DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled of recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” I broke into tears. The reaction surprised me. It came from somewhere deep within.
There was still a great deal of caution, in light of the 25 day stay (initially we all believed that the court’s decision wouldn’t go into place for 25 days) so we kept our enthusiasm in check. But then on Friday evening, I was sitting in the park with my dogs, when I read the California Federal Appeals Court issued a late order: “The stay in the above matter is dissolved effective immediately”. A few minutes later I read “A jubilant San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced that same-sex couples would be able to marry all weekend in his city, which is hosting its annual gay pride celebration this weekend.” And the marriages began.
Damon and I had another chance, and this time we had the federal government behind us.
Saturday morning we decided thirteen years was long enough to wait, we were going to get married. We already had non-wedding plans with our friend Chatters, so I needed to inform her things had changed. Chatters and I only text in rhyme, so I sent the following:
This weekend’s plans have somewhat varied
Pride tomorrow but today get married.
We’re heading to SF City Hall to stand and wait
We’d like you with us. That’d be great.
She threw on a dress, jumped on her bicycle and rode the fifteen blocks to meet us. She was so excited she got dizzy and had to sit down. None of us could really believe this was happening. It was so surreal.
We stood in a line that began outside City Hall and snaked through the corridors. Hundreds of couples were there, many who’d been together decades longer than us.
The love, camaraderie and jubilation was like nothing we’d experienced. Cars driving by honked in support. People took photos for strangers. Stories were told. Pens were exchanged as forms were filled out. Questions like “Where was your dad born” echoed through the halls. Smiling volunteers were everywhere.
Two elderly gentlemen in their eighties were among the couples (photo below). One of them had mobility issues and his partner fussed over him and made sure he was comfortable. I thought about how critical being married was for them; they don’t have to worry about being split up in a nursing home, and won’t be burdened with unfair end of life complications. The surviving partner won’t be treated as just “a friend.”
In the grand rotunda Damon and I vowed that we’d always look after one another. We are a family.
Chatters took us out for brunch at a lesbian-run restaurant. Afterwards we celebrated with “bottomless mimosas,” and the earthy waitress held us to the “bottomless” part, in light of our big day. Full and happy we nearly fell asleep in the booth.
Everyone we encountered on our way home seemed able to tell we’d just been married, and all we got was love — from the streets of San Francisco, to the new neighbors we met in our Oakland elevator — people struck up conversations with us and shared in our joy.
Californians had been humiliated by the fluke which was Prop 8. Funded and backed largely by Mormons in Utah, it was never who we were.
In the corridors of San Francisco’s palatial City Hall, the building that rose after the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, the building where Harvey Milk made history, and where a young Diane Feinstein appeared before gasping reporters to deliver the unbelievable news that Milk and Mayor Moscone had been assassinated in their offices. The building where brand new Mayor Gavin Newsom made history by issuing the first same-sex wedding licenses in the United States, and where his successor Ed Lee invited couples to marry all weekend in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings.
In that building we didn’t do things the way they wanted us to do them in Utah, or in Mississippi, or on the Plains. We were free to make our own way, make our own families, and it was beautiful.
NOTE FROM JOHN: Chris and Damon have set up a wedding registry with United Airlines to pay for their honeymoon. If anyone feels like contributing, here’s the link – thanks.