The Great Valentine Wedding Party

Regardless of their legal outcome, the gay marriage ceremonies that took place in San Francisco City Hall over Valentine's weekend are sure to become a major milestone in gay history, along with the 1969 Stonewall riots and the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978.

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But the first gay marriages in the United States are also an important moment in the larger American story, part of the drive toward fulfilling the promise of the nation to hold to the truth that all people are created equal. The Valentine's weekend weddings are akin to the moment that Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. For the first time, gay people simply claimed their rights to marriage (with the aid of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom), instead of merely protesting for them, as they had done before.

The best argument for gay marriage is not about equal rights, however, though those claims have been well made and are eminently sound. The best case for gay marriage was visible in the faces of some 2,000 couples getting married in the San Francisco City Hall rotunda over the long weekend.

From the lens of the outside world, these events may have looked at first like politics taking place. But, for the couples getting married in these ceremonies, and to the friends and families gathered there with them, the marriage ceremonies were eminently personal testaments of their love and devotion. To paraphrase what Martin Luther King, Jr. said about interracial marriage, homosexuals don't get married, people get married.

In nearly every alcove around the huge City Hall rotunda over the weekend, a marriage was taking place; in the larger balcony areas, sometimes two or three. Some were officiated by clergy, others by city officials and prominent gay (and straight) politicians. Circling the rotunda, one could attend ceremony after ceremony, each profoundly personal and private, though infused with an awareness of the larger political and social significance of what was occurring.

Among the participants, there was a palpable sense of awe, not just at history being made but of dreams coming true. Many of those involved in the ceremonies would not have dared to dream that such an event could be possible in their lifetimes. The first marriage to take place was between lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon, 79, and Del Martin, 83, who have been together for 51 years.

Before this last weekend, gay marriage was just a political idea to most people in this country. The San Francisco ceremonies put a human face--a few thousand faces--on that idea for the first time; much like what Rock Hudson or Magic Johnson announcing they had AIDS did for that epidemic. The couples getting married demonstrated that gay marriage is not fundamentally about sex, but about love, and that by getting married gays are not threatening the institution of marriage, but rather are celebrating it and enlarging its reach.

The political meaning of the events of the Valentine's weekend marriages was trumped by their personal significance. The lines to enter City Hall may have resembled a march, but those who emerged afterward did so two by two.

Joel Federman teaches at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco, Calif. Read more of his writings at

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