I haven’t had butterflies this active in my stomach since the night I stood in line during a San Francisco winter rainstorm to have my chance to marry the woman I love. If we win today, can I sue the state of California to undo their vicious invalidation and reinstate our wedding day as Feb. 16, 2004? I’m serious. Can I?
I’m being flooded with memories fast and furious. So I’m going to share a piece I wrote in 2005 about our experiences during that now infamous, first Valentine’s weekend of love.
Call me Quixote
by Genta Sebastian
Feb. 16, 2005
I looked up from my personal puddle, and down the line of huddled figures trying to find shelter under umbrellas and blankets from the frigid San Francisco storm. Strangers had come by earlier, but when they left, so did the last of the hot coffee. It was four in the morning of Monday, February 16, 2004, and I was camped in a borrowed lawn chair under two sodden umbrellas, waiting for the volunteers who would open City Hall on this Presidents’ Day holiday. Traf, the woman I’ve loved for years and planned to marry, was sleeping as best she could in our parked car across the street. Through the punishing rain I could just make out our Minnesota plates among the California ones.
We’d driven non-stop from my mother’s house in central California, where we were visiting, as soon as we heard legal gay marriages were being performed in San Francisco, and arrived on February 14th in the City of Love. It was already night, and City Hall was closed, so we’d waited in line for a Valentine dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, relaxing in the atmosphere around us enough to whisper words of love and hold each others’ hand covertly beneath the cover of white tablecloths.
We found the only hotel room left in the entire city that night, and slept like the two women in comfortable shoes that we are. My Beloved was fifty-six, I nine years younger, and the long road trip had taken its toll on mind and body.
At eight the next morning I rose first, still tired but excited by the knowledge that today at long last, was our wedding day. I was making complimentary coffee and had just turned on the news when the TV filled with coverage of block long lines around City Hall. I stared at Traf, she stared back at me, and we both turned to stare at the television. We flew into action and raced for our chance to be married. Apparently we weren’t the only ones eager to take part in this historical moment.
The gay community had been abuzz since the sudden action by Mayor Newsom three days earlier, legalizing marriage for the first time anywhere in the United States in the City of San Francisco. Conventional wisdom held that the weddings would be stopped on Tuesday, February 17th, as soon as government got back to business as usual, being run by duly elected homophobes and cowards. The weddings had started on Friday, and it was already Sunday morning when we arrived at City Hall. When we tried to join first one, and then the other line, we were told that only those with vouchers would be married today, Line A first, and if there was time, the people in Line B. We were told they’d decided not to hand out any more vouchers because they couldn’t be sure how long they’d be allowed to proceed legally, and we should go away and try again tomorrow.
I looked at Traf’s face, grumpy because she hadn’t had any coffee yet, and thought about just giving up. We’d raced off without the proper funds or preparations for a vacation, and we were exhausted after a 2,500 mile drive from Minnesota a few days earlier. We’d arrived too late the day before to get married, and today they were telling us only the two lines which had formed before dawn surrounding the block would be served.
We weren’t the only ones looking frustrated. Tuesday morning would surely bring an end to the weddings, and damn it, Traf and I wanted to be one of the fortunate couples. We wanted our chance to be married, and had come a long way to realize it. I was deeply in love with Traf, and had already tied my future to hers, but I wanted to honor that union as legal, to have our marriage recognized as equal to that of any other couple. So I stared at the lucky ones in Lines A and B and was jealous of their good fortune.
We walked the block surrounding City Hall, talking to some of the excited couples waiting to get married. They crossed all economic, racial, and religious lines, since we’re a steady four to ten percent of all populations. Two women were both in white wedding dresses, and more than one couple of men wore tuxedos. Others were dressed very casually in jeans and t-shirts. Some people wore very feminine clothes and others more masculine ones. A few of the women might have passed for men. Some of the men were in drag, from the outrageous to the frumpy. Several couples were dressed as if they were attending a costume party, others were elegantly draped and coiffed. Many had family and friends in attendance, others had come in small groups together, and still others, like Traf and I, were little islands unto themselves.
After circling the block aimlessly, we finally talked to several people and found a group as lost as we were. Together we formed a third line, intending to wait and see if we could be fit in today, after those with vouchers had been married. We told anyone and everyone who would listen that we were the self-proclaimed C Line, and we would wait as long as it took to get married.
Volunteers wandered in and out as during the morning Line A, then in the afternoon Line B, were allowed into City Hall. Happy couples waving their licenses burst through the glass doors to descend the long stairway, jumping into their cars and honking horns as they drove away. Friends and families, and some total strangers eager to share in the joy, gathered at the foot of the long staircase, throwing rice and flower petals at the legal couples so happy in their declared love.
Traf was growing restless, wandering in and out of the crowd. Standing on the hard sidewalk was beginning to hurt the double fusion in her back. I found aspirin in my purse, and held our spot watching everything, determined to forget nothing.
We were maybe the tenth couple in the new line. A pair of men from Bakersfield stood in front of us, and a lesbian couple behind us, from Palm Springs, near the Mexico border. As the morning passed, conversations rose around us. We joined in.
Strangers came. A mother, and daughter of perhaps seven, gave me a fresh pink rose and wished us good luck before passing other flowers to the couples waiting. Some people brought Valentine candy, handing out kisses and hugs with their own best wishes. University students arrived with their waivers and endless lists of questions. Youngsters drove by and honked their horns, some yelling, “Way to go!” and others shouting, “Faggots! Dykes!” Across the street a group of relatively normal looking people had gathered with signs that read: 1 MAN + 1 WOMAN = MARRIAGE; and GOD MADE ADAM AND EVE, NOT ADAM AND STEVE. A group of Muslim women had recently swelled their ranks, dressed in symbols of their servitude to a male dominated society. They held themselves apart, standing mutely in protest of the weddings being performed across the street in City Hall.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a gaggle of drag queen nuns who do great work raising funds for AIDS and it’s prevention, swept dramatically into view, grabbing the focus of the media. Television cameras and crews had been cruising the lines all day, interviewing a few couples, but mostly giving their “informed” take on what was happening. It was a relief to watch the Sisters work their particular brand of outrageous spiritual magic on the indifferent newscasters.
Once the floodlights turned off, the Sisters turned to us, offering coffee and asking about our stories. Standing sedately in their flamboyant costumes and makeup, they listened respectfully as each couple quietly explained their reasons for marrying, and when they turned to us, my beloved Traf said, “Because I want to die a first class citizen, with all those rights and responsibilities, rather than a second class citizen, as I’ve lived.” I swear to God those were her words.
Traf’s usually very quiet, but when she speaks, her wisdom glows. I beamed at her standing behind me, taking her hand proudly. My sweetie pulled hers free, unwilling even there, even then, to expose us to harassment, ridicule, or even danger from the homophobes across the street. Some of them looked bat poop crazy.
The drag queen smiled at me sadly, nodding. It’s the age old story of our people, hiding in plain sight, unwilling to risk our loved ones to the hatred of others. I’m long used to it, although it still chafes. But it kept our daughters relatively free of harassment as they grew up, and was still protecting our four grandchildren. That’s what mattered.
I looked up when Traf growled at the people standing across the street. They were loudly cheering a decorated truck covered with the slogans, Die QUEERS Die, and GOD HATES FAGS as it turned the corner, blaring it’s horn. I had already begun thinking of the people across the street as The Haters even before Westboro Baptist Church showed up with their dog and pony show. The people on our side of the street, strangers but still family, I thought of as The Lovers. The Haters didn’t bother me nearly as much as they bothered Traf. But then, I’ve never been on the receiving end of physical violence. She has.
The afternoon was overcast when we noticed the volunteers beginning to leave. It was clear the weddings were over for the day when Mabel Teng, San Francisco’s Assessor-Recorder, came out to speak with us. She wanted us to leave, telling us they couldn’t guarantee our safety. Mrs. Teng explained a winter storm was coming, and pointed to the darkening skies. She told us to go home, and come back in the morning.
A woman called out, asking if we’d be arrested if we stayed. Mrs. Teng explained that we wouldn’t be arrested, but we wouldn’t be protected either. The volunteers were going home. They were tired from a full, exhausting three days. They’d be back in the morning, and we could try again then.
The hundred or more couples who were now waiting with us began shouting. Someone asked for vouchers guaranteeing us a place in line to get married tomorrow. By that time I was wishing for one, then we could find another hotel room and rest. It had been a long day.
But no. Mrs. Teng held firm in the decision not to hand out vouchers. We’d just have to take our chances. She once more reiterated that they could not guarantee our safety if we insisted on staying in front of City Hall. She urged us to take shelter from the coming storm.
Someone spoke for us all and said that we weren’t giving up our one chance to get married, and we’d still be here when they got back in the morning. Mrs. Teng gestured helplessly at the group of protesters across the street, and said once more that they couldn’t guarantee our safety. Many of the off duty police who’d kept the Lovers and Haters separated during the day were also going home. It was clear she feared there could be violence.
Someone, maybe me, shouted that we would take care of each other like we always had, and there was vocal agreement up and down the line. More than a few defiant fists were raised in the air. Although she argued with us a while longer, Mrs. Teng had no choice but to leave us where we were, awaiting our destiny.
The small restaurants and shops in the vicinity were enjoying a brisk business from not only the gays and lesbians getting married and their friends and families, but also those who came to witness the phenomenon. As people started settling in for the night, I found a small drugstore and bought the last umbrella, and a pair of rain ponchos. With chips and cookies, bottled water and instant coffee, we settled into our chairs to try and relax. Groups of people had wisely rented nearby hotel rooms, now completely booked, and the majority were relaxing while the few took turns manning the line. Someone left us an umbrella.
Among those still in line, the mood turned festive. Before long people who lived close enough to fetch supplies began erecting pup tents on the small raised lawn surrounding City Hall. Others brought sleeping bags, and then unrolled them to sit more comfortably on the grass. A few people had lanterns, which began glowing softly in the pre-storm quiet. The weddings were over, the reporters had turned off their lights and packed up for the five o’clock news, the well wishers had gone home for dinner. A haze of happy exhaustion began wending through those of us who held our places in line. The Haters were still across the street, but they too were less vocal now that the weddings were over, their numbers reducing as the evening wore on.
“Get those tents and sleeping bags off the lawn!” came the loud bark of an angry city cop. He was average height and a little beefy, and his eyes were looking thunderbolts at everyone around him. His voice rose even louder as he echoed himself, adding, “…or you’ll be arrested!”
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wondered if we were all going to end up guests of the City for the evening, and I thought about grabbing Traf and running across the street to jump in our car and speed off. Officer Power started walking the lawn, hurrying those who were quickly obeying his orders, and his hand rested threateningly on his nightstick. He was getting louder and more aggressive. An off duty cop I’d seen keeping the Haters at bay earlier suddenly showed up, a half eaten sandwich in one hand. He walked up to Officer Power and spoke to him quietly, gesturing at the people rapidly complying. Officer Power unpuffed and walked off with Officer Peace.
No one wanted another confrontation, so the small tent city evaporated. The sleeping bags made islands on the sidewalk, used for a little insulation from the cold concrete. Friends and families of the couples waiting began to show up, either sharing in the lovers’ vigil, or taking their places to give them a rest. There were still some half-hearted cat calls from the dwindling group of Haters, but we ignored them.
Out of the darkening gloom three of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence showed up again, still in drag, handing out homemade PB&J sandwiches and hot coffee. The Haters jeered loudly, but were clearly envious of the warm drinks. I was ecstatic. The temperature had dropped and I had naively dressed for a warmer climate. Drag queen nuns perhaps, but to me they were angels of mercy. I needed that coffee.
It had now been more than twenty-four hours since Traf and I left my surprised but supportive mother in Fresno to strike out on our greatest adventure together. We’d slept for six of those hours. My exhausted body and over stimulated brain were screaming for a bed, and I was sure that Traf’s were too, although she stoically denied it. We agreed to take turns grabbing some sleep in the car, but neither of us was willing to leave the other alone in the line, not with the Haters still across the street.
The after evening services crowd had begun arriving over there, and some of them looked the worse for a six pack or two. Traf asked me if I was sure I wanted to stay, that she’d understand if we admitted defeat and left before anything bad could happen. Her kind eyes were concerned. She didn’t want anything to happen to me.
I took her hand and held it firmly, causing someone to yell at us from across the street. This time Traf didn’t pull back, but gripped me tightly. A comfortable silence descended between us. We’d see this thing through, wherever it took us, just as we’d lived our lives.
But after a while I needed a bathroom, and the businesses around us had closed. I’d never dropped my drawers to pee behind a bush in my life, and I certainly wasn’t going to start on the front lawn of San Francisco’s City Hall. I grit my teeth and refused to drink any more. Sitting very still helped, but only a little. I stopped talking to anyone, focusing on keeping control. After a while, I began to realize that soon I’d have no choice in the matter of where I went, and just then a miracle happened.
Some kind soul arranged for three port-a-potties to be set up at the corner. I wasn’t the only one to jump up and join the line and soon we all felt much better, exchanging words of support and encouragement once more. God bless and keep our wondrous benefactor. It’s a thousand times easier to be brave and true when you’re not doing the potty dance.
The rain began lightly enough, but grew steadily in intensity. At first it was possible to stay reasonably dry wearing ponchos and huddling under the umbrellas, but then the skies opened up and dumped gallons of water on us, a strong wind blowing it in and under everything. Drenched, miserable, we huddled in small groups, taking pleasure only in the sight of the Haters scattering. They stood up for what they believed all right, until they got wet.
Traf’s back had forced her to sit down hours earlier and the cold wind and rain were making her stiffen miserably. Since the Haters were gone she agreed to take shelter in our car. I told her I’d replace her in a few hours. She shambled off under the meager shelter of a ball cap some kind soul had distributed in the first minutes of the rain. I wrapped a sodden blanket around me and clenched the handles of the two umbrellas with my arthritic fingers.
The media showed up just after midnight, thrilled to film our misery. Their flood lights pierced the darkness, showing the sheets of pounding rain battering us. Handsome and/or beautiful reporters clutched their trench coats and pontificated on our determination. Each channel took turns interviewing the first couple in line. The two men were blooming, warming themselves on the attention. I was happy for them, but as for me I wished the media would go away and leave us alone. The flood lights swept over us again and again.
Three in the morning came and went and I let Traf sleep. I was already as cold and miserable as I was going to get, and I just closed my eyes and suffered the incessant pounding of the rain and the water running down my thoroughly chilled body. The early morning hours drew out for an eternity, and I filled the time remembering why I was doing this.
Traf and I owned a house, planted a garden, and took care of our family. We paid taxes, donated to charity, and baked cookies for the neighbors every Christmas. We lived exactly like the other married couples on the block, down to decorating Easter eggs with the grand kids, and holding a candlelight vigil on our street corner the evening of September 11, 2001.
Her back was broken at work, crashing two discs and injuring four more. Two surgeries later she was declared totally disabled. She chafed at the restrictions, begging her doctor for a work release. It was denied. I can’t speak for every butch, but all the ones I know, Traf included, feel very strongly identified with their jobs. It devastated her to stay at home.
When my school district finally discovered I was a lesbian after years of teaching, they fired me on the spot. Never mind my sterling record, many awards, and public recognition for saving a student’s life with the Heimlich maneuver. They refused to let “a pervert” work around children. That put me in a financial bind, and into a deep depression.
Thank goodness Traf was covered by Medicare when she started suffering angina in 2002. The worst moment of my life came when her eyes rolled back in her head and she crumpled at my feet, showing no signs of life. Time moved too fast and too slow in the nightmare time between the 911 call and driving to the hospital following the ambulance.
The Emergency Room nurse wouldn’t let me in to see her until one of our daughters arrived twenty minutes later and vouched for me. Nurse Ratchet wouldn’t even tell me if Traf was alive, or dead, smirking at me from her cage. She enjoyed heaping pain upon my already suffering head. It pleased her to hurt me. It was then I understood the plate glass between them and us; I wanted to reach in and throttle her.
Excellent doctors diagnosed heart disease and inserted three stents in Traf’s heart. However the surgeon didn’t consider me immediate family so I was not notified when my dear one came out of surgery. I was left sitting in the waiting room for several extra hours, worrying about the unusual length of the procedure, until a passing nurse took pity on me and told me where she was. I was still clutching her medical Power of Attorney in my hand, having shown it to one and all.
Every time I’ve been hurt Traf has been there to hold me and offer words of love and support. She’s been my rock and muse, a most wondrously unusual combination. Over the years our extended families have accepted us, even the born again Christian faction, and together we’ve suffered the anguish of loss and illness on both sides. I’ve dried her tears, she’s dried mine.
Traf taught me how to fish, and stay within a budget. I taught her to swim, and spell. She gave me two daughters, I gave her three cats. We’ve colored each others’ gray hairs, and kissed each wrinkle as they’ve blessed our faces. And yes, we’ve found passion in each other’s arms, as well as strength and comfort.
So I bore the cold wind and battering rain, because we’re a couple. We’d always been a family, and we always would be. A piece of paper wouldn’t change that one bit. But for the first times in our lives, we’d be recognized as just as good, just as valid a couple as any other – at least in San Francisco until Tuesday morning. But even if we were married for only a few hours, we would have told the world, “This is my wife, and I am hers, with all the same rights and responsibilities as any president, senator, or convicted felon.”
Traf prodded me out of my stupor at five in the morning. It was still very dark, and the rain showed no signs of letting up. She looked much refreshed, and I gratefully made my way stiffly to our car. I dropped the sodden blanket in the street beside the passenger door. No sense bringing it in with me. I locked the door, turned on the car heater and fell deeply asleep under the lap robe we always carry, ignoring the media trucks parking all around me, setting up for their early morning field reports.
Traf roused me at eight. Mrs. Teng was back, and had told those waiting in line that she’d been moved through the night by the news coverage of our determination to get married. She promised to open City Hall to get us in out of the rain as soon as possible. Then she turned to the watching TV cameras and asked all volunteers to come in as early as possible. She vowed to marry as many of us as possible. It was President’s Day Monday, the courts would open in twenty four hours. It was a race against time. We were allowed to move our line up the grand staircase. This was it.
The reporters chased her into the building, then turned to devour us. One even interviewed me as I watched Traf immediately wander out of sight. She rejoined me once the camera was turned off and playfully called out to the reporter, a pretty young woman, asking if she were married or not.
The reporter was walking away, and tossed back over her shoulder that no, she wasn’t married. Traf called loudly after her, “Well I’m single for a few more minutes. You want to mess around?” The reporter stopped dead in her tracks and did a slow swirl on one high heeled pump and then burst out into great guffaws of laughter, much larger than one would expect from a person so small. The people in line around us, who had heard the exchange, all laughed uproariously.
We were ready. The importance of the moment was flooding through those of us who had stood the storm, warming our chilled bodies and souls. We would all have the same anniversary, if we had any anniversary.
Around nine the rain finally began to let up, and as our line slowly filed into City Hall, we took turns changing clothes and sprucing up as best we could in the public restrooms. Someone had thoughtfully left a blow dryer, hair spray, and several shades of lipstick in the Ladies’ Room. Traf lugged in our overnight bag from the car, and we changed into our nice clothes, a dress for me and a suit for her. We might have been decades older but I felt every bit as much the eager bride as the young women around me. In only a few minutes more I would be a married lady.
Everyone had been well trained in the legalities, and great pains were taken to ensure that everything was done right so as to stand up under future legal challenges. Nothing was crossed out. If mistakes were made, new forms were supplied and filled out. Fees were paid, applications were sworn to and signed. When all the legalities had been observed, we joined a line in the rotunda.
All around that magnificent edifice, joy was abounding. Wherever there was room to gather, volunteer officials were performing legal marriages for glowing couples. Voices rang through the rounded dome, excitement in every one. As a wedding ended the marriage certificates were quickly signed, and a new group would pass the old, exchanging best wishes and congratulating each other.
A bright-eyed young man greeted us at the head of the line, asking if we needed a witness. Neither Traf nor I had considered this and we quickly agreed. He told us his name, and that he was a straight college student who’d seen the weddings on the news. He’d come to see the gay weddings for himself, and ended up staying to offer his services as a witness. He said to me, “I wish some of the guys in my dorm could see this for themselves. They’d know then it’s not about sex. It’s about love.” I nearly kissed him.
I expected to be led up the grand staircase to be married by one of the dozens of officials performing weddings, but instead we were swept up by a lovely young woman who introduced herself as one of Mayor Newsom’s assistants. She took us upstairs in a private elevator to the Office of the Mayor, and we were married there, standing before a window framed by one American flag, and one California flag. I was suddenly flooded with memories of Mayor Moscone, and brave Harvey Milk, and could almost feel their benevolent spirits blessing our union as we repeated the magic words that transform two into one.
As I kissed my wife, I knew completeness for the first time in my life. We’d done it. We were married. At this time, in this place, we were legally conjoined and recognized by a legitimate government. It was a moment of tremendous romance, historic significance, and personal triumph. I did what any other woman in my shoes would have done. I smiled through my tears, and hugged everyone in sight.
As we walked out of City Hall into the sunlight breaking through the clouds, we held hands. Traf lifted our newly printed marriage certificate over her head and the crowd of well wishing strangers gathered below cheered. The crowd across the street booed. Traf stared at them for one moment, then turned and kissed me right there, out in the open, for God and everyone to see. It was our first public kiss, the kiss of unashamed newlyweds in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In my hand I still clutched the rose, remarkably preserved in the cold weather, that the mother and child had given me over twenty four hours ago. I raised it to my lips and kissed it. As we walked down the steps together, hand in hand, I gave it to a glowing woman waiting her turn in line to marry the woman she loved.
The city of San Francisco fought discrimination long and hard. Six months later we were sent a letter from the State of California, invalidating our marriage, and offering a refund for the fees we’d paid. We donated the money to the continuing effort to legalize gay marriage.
The powers that be have stripped us of legitimate legal status once more, but for six months last year we were recognized as a legally married couple by the progressive City of San Francisco. I will be eternally grateful to Mayor Newsom, Mabel Teng, and the hundreds of volunteers who made my dearest wish possible.
Being equal for the first time in my long life has transformed me. I no longer sit back, content to hide in the shadows. When people are needed to make a statement, I am there and so is my pocketbook. I volunteer. I organize. I speak out. I’ve met great support, and great opposition. It is important that I do this for future generations of families like ours. I do it for Traf, and the past that binds us together.
There are too many times when I am beaten down, feeling myself a Don Quixote battling giant windmills. I wonder if it’s madness to expect change in the current regime of fear and repression. Will I live to see my own country recognize us as the equals we are, rather than the second class citizens they proclaim us to be? That thought always spurs me to action once more. I take a deep breath and rejoin the fray. I will fight for my family and the woman I love until my last breath, if need be.
Some impossible dreams are worth all sacrifice.