Ten Years Later, SF Couples Celebrate 2004 Same-Sex Weddings
This Sunday, February 16, Helen Zia and Lia Shigemura will celebrate the 10th anniversary of their marriage in 2004, one of the more than 4,000 same-sex weddings that took place in San Francisco during what was dubbed the "Winter of Love."
It will mark the first time that the Oakland couple has viewed their ceremony a decade ago as being their "first real marriage," said Zia.
Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom had ordered city officials to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of state laws. The move shocked the nation and forced the marriage equality fight to the forefront of the LGBT community’s agenda.
Tipped off in the morning of February 12 by friends in the office of the city’s assessor-recorder that same-sex couples would be allowed to wed that day, Zia recalled thinking at the time it would be some mass wedding for political show. She was stunned to see the news coverage that afternoon of the weddings taking place.
"Little did we know," she said. "It felt like my jaw dropped as I was thinking I can’t believe what is happening."
The couple ended up volunteering that President’s Day to help process the hundreds of marriage licenses being filed with the city, and at the end of the day, Zia proposed to Shigemura.
"Fortunately, she didn’t say no," said Zia. "We got to help 800 other couples get married that day and celebrated ourselves."
Since the California Supreme Court annulled their 2004 wedding, the women have viewed their second marriage on June 17, 2008 as the one to take note of each year. Due to the court’s ruling that summer, same-sex couples were able to legally wed prior to the passage that fall of Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that reinstated the ban against same-sex marriage in California. (The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the anti-gay law on a technicality last June.)
"We were just talking about this, that we should be celebrating our 2004 marriage, as that was our first real marriage," Zia told the Bay Area Reporter this week. "We hadn’t because we would go through the joke of, ’Well, what day are we celebrating?’"
Over the years the women have marked various dates of significance, from when they first met and when they became domestic partners in 1993. With the 2004 wedding now reaching a milestone year, the couple is seeing the ceremony in a new light.
That year, said Zia, "was the watershed, that’s what started all of this. That is what not only changed our lives but changed the world’s."
Marin residents Ed Swanson and Paul Herman will also be taking note this year of their 2004 marriage, the second of three ceremonies they have held. They usually celebrate the "least legal" of the three, said Swanson, their commitment ceremony from September 10, 1994.
"When we committed to each other, that is the date we celebrate," said Swanson, adding that their "legal marriage" occurred in October 2008.
They decided to join the other couples marrying in 2004, Swanson said, but he viewed that ceremony more as a "political statement" than legal matrimony.
"My feeling was someone had to bust a hole in the Berlin Wall and we had to make a run for it. If people didn’t show this was something we really cared about, they might think it wasn’t important," recalled Swanson. "My feeling was we needed to get as many people through that gap as fast as we could and I wanted to be one of them. Though I suspected we would be rounded up and shipped home, and that indeed was what happened later on."
The couple planned to mark the occasion at the City Hall celebration Wednesday night, February 12, hosted by Mayor Ed Lee and Newsom for all those who married in 2004.
"I am so thankful for Gavin Newsom and what he did. I feel to this day he taught a lot of gay people how this was something that was possible," said Swanson. "I think a lot of us had not had the vision to see this could really happen, at least not in the foreseeable future. It was kind of a wake up call, I felt, and for me what I want to celebrate."
The lines of couples who rushed to City Hall to wed that winter is what stands out most for City Attorney Dennis Herrera , whose office led the legal fight in state court against the state’s anti-gay marriage statutes and later was a party to the federal litigation.
"I used to walk that line every day before I came up to my office to listen to people’s stories and see the joy in their face and what it all meant to them at the same time we were fighting for them in court during that time," said Herrera. "It made it all the more real and reinforced we are on the right side of history."
For Steve Kawa, Newsom’s and now Lee’s chief of staff, and his husband, Dan Henkle , their February 13, 2004 wedding presided over by Newsom is one of three anniversary dates they celebrate. They also had a commitment ceremony on August 12, 1995 and were legally wed September 6, 2008.
"Each ceremony means so much to us," said Kawa, who looks back on them now with smiles but recalls there were "a lot of ups and a lot of downs" over the last decade. "Unlike for other folks, we were a same-sex couple and it wasn’t a one-time shot. For us the third time was the charm but it was charming all the way through."
Wednesday current Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu announced that her office in August had handed over the 3,955 historic same-sex marriage licenses that were recorded between February 12 and March 11 of 2004 to the San Francisco Public Library as part of the city’s official archive. The documents had been kept in boxes inside a vault at City Hall, as the B.A.R. noted in a 2009 article, while city officials determined what to do with them.
Because California at the time did not recognize same-sex marriages, the Office of State Registrar inside the state Department of Health Services rejected the initial batch of licenses, 4,269 in all, and returned them to the city’s assessor-recorder office.