By Eve Kushner
For more than three months now, same-sex couples in California have headed to their county offices for marriage licenses—just like heterosexual couples. But in a déjà vu of the events of 2004, those licenses could all be yanked away if Proposition 8, the statewide initiative that would amend the state constitution to make gay marriage illegal, passes in November. Since June 16, when same-sex couples were first legally allowed to wed in California, thousands of couples have been suspended in an odd limbo between full legal marriage rights and no legal marriage rights.
If Proposition 8 passes on Nov. 4, it’s possible that the same-sex couples who have gotten married since June will be allowed to stay married. It’s also possible that the courts will invalidate the marriages—like they did after Mayor Gavin Newsom opened San Francisco City Hall for same-sex weddings in 2004.
By now, some couples have already had two marriage ceremonies and a commitment ceremony, held years before legal same-sex marriage seemed possible. Parents have had to explain to their children why they are getting married yet again and why their previous marriage was declared illegal.
Some couples view their 2008 weddings as utterly personal affairs, light-years away from political statements. For others, nothing could be more political than becoming legally married before voters potentially revoke this right. Three East Bay couples who are now legally married talk about what it’s like to say “I do” over and over and over, and what it means to get married in the shadow of the looming Proposition 8 vote.
Sherri Sokeland Kaiser and Dawn Kaiser
Five-year-old Emma Kaiser served as the flower girl the second time her mothers married, in April 2004. She scattered flower petals, was swung around and gave a toast, saying she was happy her moms were marrying.
After the California Supreme Court nullified the marriage four months later, Emma’s mothers couldn’t bear to tell her the truth. But with this year’s May ruling in favor of marriage equality, Sherri and Dawn Kaiser (respectively, Emma’s “Mommy” and “Mama”) decided to explain the situation before someone else did. They told Emma, now 9, and her little sister Sophie, 4, that because of the 2004 nullification, “The government doesn’t think we’re married right now.”
Emma was taken aback, confused, offended and hurt. She couldn’t understand what the 2004 wedding had represented, if it meant nothing in the eyes of the law. She also couldn’t grasp why anyone would say her parents couldn’t get married. Having grown up in the progressive bubble of Berkeley, she’s always had classmates with two mothers or two fathers. When it comes to the debate over marriage equality, she wonders, “What’s the issue?” The wavering status of her moms’ marriage introduced her to prejudice, say Sherri and Dawn.
But once the shock passed, Emma became excited about their next wedding—on September 13, 2008.
“We’re committed to doing this until we get it right,” jokes Sherri, 45. She and Dawn, 43, crack lots of jokes about their “déjà vows.” After their spontaneous civil ceremony in San Francisco’s City Hall on February 13, 2004, they called themselves, and others who married that day, the brides of Friday the 13th. They referred to their April 2004 backyard wedding as their 18th Anniversary and Civil Rights Gala. The September 2008 wedding was Vows and Dinner. And if they need to do it again, it’ll merely be Paperwork and Pastries.
A social worker who does psychiatric research at U.C. San Francisco, Dawn says comic relief helps to protect her heart from possible disappointment in November. She struggles to find the right balance between emotional engagement and detachment: “You do have to show up each time. What if this really is it? You invest in it, and in a way, you don’t want to, because it’s just going to get taken away again, so you’re cushioning the blow for yourself.” Annoyed to repeat a ritual that felt right the first few times, she keeps thinking, “We had that. Why do we have to do it again?”
Dawn and Sherri met 23 years ago over the summer as German majors on a University of Wisconsin, Madison, exchange program in Bonn. They became a couple the following spring, and for years they moved back and forth between the Midwest and Germany. After relocating to the Bay Area so Sherri could attend Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley, they settled in a Craftsman in southwest Berkeley.
When San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, right-wing organizations sued the city, and Sherri, a San Francisco deputy city attorney, was one of the lawyers assigned to defend the city. She dropped her kids off at school and day care that morning in her minivan—an ordinary day. By the time she came home, she says, she had gone “from the minivan to the vanguard” of the most important civil rights case in the country.
“I don’t know how I could possibly have kept my professional and personal life separate in that situation,” she says. Every legal statement she made directly applied to her, Dawn, Emma and Sophie. “It was very intense. It wasn’t just a dry legal argument, by any means. I was arguing for my own civil rights and the civil rights of the people I love the most in the world.” That felt like both a burden and an honor.
Because the last-minute wedding at City Hall hadn’t been anything like a proper wedding, she and Dawn married again in their backyard in April 2004. Dawn shed happy tears, and everyone laughed when she said “I do” too early. About 80 people attended, including friends and family. Afterward, some guests unexpectedly wrote thank-you notes, because the wedding had reminded them how loving a marriage can be.
To Dawn and Sherri, it felt weird to marry after being together 18 years and having two kids. Neither woman had ever planned to enter into a hetero institution that they considered patriarchal. This made it hard to conjure up the ideal wedding. Laughing hard, Dawn notes that whereas some women dream about their weddings all their lives, for her, “There was just a vast blank space where that dream should have been.”
Commitment ceremonies had always struck Sherri as a cheap knockoff of hetero weddings, an unappealing bit of playacting. With the April wedding, this sense didn’t entirely fall away, particularly when it came to questions of what to wear and what to call each other. The term “wives” seemed awkward and gendered. “Certainly that new vocabulary is not yet settled,” explains Sherri.
Despite these concerns, the ceremony felt deeply fulfilling, affording them a cultural moment that most people get to experience. The wedding also felt political to Sherri, because of her work on the case.
Neither she nor Dawn thought they would actually get to stay married; both expected the right to be taken away. Staying detached seemed as difficult as caring for someone’s newborn for a few weeks and then giving the baby back. “I didn’t want to get attached to it. But then I was,” Dawn says. When the California Supreme Court nullified the marriage, she felt crushed. Sherri jokingly nicknamed Dawn “my legal nullity.” But it was no laughing matter. They felt wounded by the document they’d received. Rather than saying, “The validity of marriages is pending” or “You are no longer married,” it essentially said, “You were never married.”
Over the past four years, Sherri has dedicated herself professionally to achieving marriage equality. After tasting victory in May, she realized in a fresh way that until now, she’s been denied that right, and she felt enraged. It also felt dreadful to her to choose a September wedding date based on November, a time when “people with prejudices” get to vote on her constitutional rights.
Sherri and Dawn downsized the September wedding to 30 intimates and chose to have a minister perform the ceremony in the Unitarian Universalist church in Kensington to which the family now belongs. Sherri marvels, “You just never know where life will bring you. If you had told the 25-year-old me that I’d be driving a minivan up to my church wedding, I think I would have bet my life that that wasn’t going to happen.”
For Sherri and Dawn, this wedding represents a means to the “equal dignity” that comes from no longer being in a separate category called “domestic partnership.” Marriage also affords a legal representation of their love and family structure. Neither woman views the newest nuptials as a political statement. Sherri feels she has given her pint of blood to the cause and has earned the “freedom to turn away from the battle.” She said before last month’s wedding, “This really can just be about us and our family, which is what it was supposed to be all along.”
She recognizes that even if Proposition 8 loses, some people won’t see the marriage as legitimate: “Legal rights and social points of view are often not the same thing. I think that shifts in attitudes and perceptions take time. Normalizing legal relationships helps create that shift. The more people experience gay or lesbian couples as married couples, the more normal and everyday that’s going to begin to seem—and the less frightening.” Sherri is convinced that in 30 to 50 years, marriage equality will no longer be an issue in this country.
No matter what happens in the elections, she says, “I feel so very married already that the fight over what the state will or will not recognize has become abstract for me.”
Gerry Wiener and Scott Riddle
It was the height of simplicity. In an unmanicured Tilden Park meadow on 8/8/08, Gerry Wiener and Scott Riddle of Berkeley stood before a bamboo altar that supported a striking green fabric. Fog enshrouded the meadow, and the fabric swayed in the wind, as did willows and oaks. A nine-person chorus (friends with whom Gerry used to sing) performed a Dixie Chicks song in five-part harmony: “How long do you want to be loved? Is forever enough? Is forever enough?”
In the largely unscripted proceedings, the grooms had no idea what the officiants would say. Dave Kojan and Ligia Giese—a heterosexual, married, expecting couple—presided over the ceremony. After exploring various meanings of the number 8, they described their friendship with Gerry and Scott, citing the grooms’ similarities and differences. Scott, 46, is a professional chef, and Gerry, 44, can’t cook to save his life. On the other hand, Kojan told them, “You’re both dudes.” Referring to the happiness of their own marriage, Kojan and Giese said the grooms should have the right to experience all facets of married life: “Why should they get to avoid arguing about who’s a worse driver and who left the dishwasher door open?”
Both grooms beamed throughout the 20-minute ceremony, and Scott wiped away occasional tears. They read a Walt Whitman poem aloud, hamming it up. (Gerry teaches high school drama and English.) And after the officiant pronounced them “partners in life,” they clasped hands and walked away from the crowd, a happy saunter that spontaneously turned into skipping.
About 115 people of all ages attended—relatives, coworkers and friends. About 90 percent were straight, according to the grooms.
As a band played bluegrass, the group feasted on barbecued pork and later a peach chantilly cake. By then, the fog had given way to brilliant sunshine.
Scott and Gerry met at an Oscars party in 2006. Gerry recalls, “We knew so quickly that we wanted to be together forever.” They soon shared Gerry’s cozy west Berkeley live-work loft.
A year after they met, Scott proposed on a Tahoe mountaintop, presenting Gerry with a ring shaped like an offset 8. Both men were wearing skis. Gerry was startled. Having grown up gay, he’d never thought of marriage as an option, but he accepted happily. They chose an August 2008 wedding date to give them and their far-flung relatives time to plan for the event.
On the second anniversary of their relationship, in March 2008, Gerry counterproposed (one might say) with a ring containing a striped stone, a picture jasper. Even though wedding plans were already in the works, Gerry figured, “Nothing’s traditional in this marriage, and I think he deserves to be proposed to, as well.”
Because they had instantly felt married, a wedding struck them as a “foregone conclusion.” They figured that just because the government said they couldn’t marry, that was no reason they couldn’t. They didn’t expect same-sex marriage to become a legal reality.
The arrival of marriage equality has caught them by surprise. Eleven days after the wedding, Scott and Gerry appeared happily dazed, unable to believe they were truly married. With wedding gifts askew on the living room table, Gerry said, “I’m still getting used to the idea” of being married. Scott felt shocked by their marital status. “How did this happen?” he laughed.
Rather than using the word “husband” for each other, Gerry and Scott will probably stick with “partner,” though they’re unsure. But they’re unequivocal about one term: “marriage” is the only word that captures the depth of their relationship.
Gerry began coming out in his early 20s but never felt a profound connection with any man before Scott. Now Gerry feels he has the type of bond his parents shared in a half-century of loving marriage: “Our relationship feels like a deeper, more profound, forever kind of a relationship. It deserves to be called a marriage, because it is one.”
Scott came out at 19 and ended a 10-year relationship before meeting Gerry. Scott and his former partner had a commitment ceremony in 1999, four years into their time together. He sees marriage as quite a different entity, because of the power inherent in a wedding ritual. As Gerry says, there was tremendous power in driving to Oakland City Hall to fill out the paperwork certifying their marriage. The Tilden ceremony endowed even his wedding ring with a symbolic power he didn’t anticipate; the ring now represents the vows they made and everything that day meant.
They feel that legalization has brought legitimacy to their relationship, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Scott notes, “That wasn’t our goal in getting married. But it’s awfully nice to be recognized.” As a gay teacher, Gerry also feels that being legally married makes him less vulnerable if a student’s parents ever take issue with his gayness. Gerry said he might retort, “Arnold Schwarzenegger says we’re married. So there.”
Though the Supreme Court ruling is so recent, Gerry and Scott see legalization as having changed mainstream perceptions. Shopping at Men’s Wearhouse in San Leandro, they explained that they were buying suits for their wedding, and the salesperson didn’t bat an eyelash.
The wedding invitation also prompted several parent to explain to their kids that men can marry each other. Similarly, attending the wedding exposed friends and relatives throughout the country to a loving gay relationship. “There’s a difference between people knowing we’re gay and coming to our wedding,” Scott comments. “It can go a long way toward acceptance in people’s minds.”
In marrying, he and Gerry weren’t trying to make a political statement or throw something controversial in people’s faces. “That’s not us, really,” says Scott. “But we definitely were aware of what effect going to a gay wedding was going to have on some people.”
In April, before the Supreme Court ruling, Gerry attended a faculty meeting in which someone announced the upcoming wedding of a heterosexual teacher. No one mentioned Gerry’s August nuptials. With legalization of same-sex marriage, Gerry says he felt freer to announce his marriage. In fact, on the first day of school, the principal started a staff meeting with news of Gerry’s wedding, prompting effusive responses.
If Proposition 8 passes and legalization disappears, it’s hard for Gerry to anticipate how he’d feel. Losing the right would be sad and might feel like a slap in the face. But he feels it wouldn’t change anything in his relationship to Scott.
Scott believes society will eventually legalize and accept same-sex marriage, and he can wait patiently for that. He knows he and Gerry have little control over what happens in November. Even with their marital rights revoked, Scott says, “I don’t think in my heart I’ll be any less married to Gerry.”
Koko Lin and Margot Yapp
Before Margot Yapp and Koko Lin married at Oakland’s City Hall on June 16, 2008, they faced a dilemma. It wasn’t a question of their love; they had already had a 2002 commitment ceremony and had married at San Francisco’s City Hall on February 13, 2004. Rather, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums had invited Koko and Margot to participate, and Margot was ambivalent about his motivations for officiating.
He chose them because he wanted to include diverse Oakland couples in a series of ceremonies. Margot, 46, grew up in Malaysia, and Koko, 40, grew up in Taiwan. Both are ethnically Chinese. They first met in 1996 at the San Francisco Chinese New Year’s Parade, where Koko had organized an Asian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group and made people wear Mickey Mouse hats for the Year of the Rat.
As a Dellums staff member explained to them, the mayor wanted to show that Oakland could rival San Francisco in supporting marriage equality. But Dellums had never been active in LGBT matters before, says Margot, so was he doing this to shore up ratings? She views marriage as a personal event. Should it also be public and political?
Margot and Koko are engineers, and they reasoned their way through the matter. They felt they had satisfied something deeply personal and romantic at their decidedly nonpolitical commitment ceremony. The only Chinese couple invited to take part in the Dellums event, Margot and Koko wanted to affect the outcome of the November election by demonstrating to the conservative Chinese community that gay Chinese do exist. If the two of them could change even half a dozen votes by accepting Dellums’ offer, being political about a wedding would be worthwhile. And, they feel, even though a marriage is about love, one can also use such an event to change people’s minds and put a human face on an issue. These views derive partly from Koko’s longtime activism with organizations such as Asian Pacific Islander Queer Women and Transgender Community and the Our Family Coalition.
Margot notes, “To tell ourselves that it’s not a political action is foolish.” With marriage equality so close at hand, she and her friends couldn’t live with themselves if they stood idly by and then lost in November. Margot, who loves to think about public policy, also feels that thousands of same-sex couples should marry in California before November, because if Proposition 8 wins, it won’t be easy to dismiss the vast number of marriage licenses already issued to those couples.
With little advance notice, Margot and Koko donned the same Asian dresses they had worn for their commitment ceremony and headed to Oakland City Hall, expecting that Dellums would marry them somewhat privately. Instead, the place teemed with members of the press; it was a hugely public event. As flashbulbs went off, Dellums pronounced them “spouses for life.”
Margot’s parents looked on, as did the brides’ daughter, 4-year-old Megan. Before they reassured her otherwise, she had fretted that since her moms had married before, this new ceremony must represent some kind of divorce.
Afterward, Margot felt glad to have cast aside her doubts, because the atmosphere buzzed with a special energy and filled everyone with adrenaline. Even the clerks working overtime radiated the happiness of those working for a special purpose. She and Koko unexpectedly ran into straight acquaintances who had come to show their support for marriage equality.
That night, Koko and Margot appeared on the Channel 7 news. The next day, U.S.-based Chinese-language papers also featured their story. The articles seemed much more positive about marriage equality than comparable articles in 2004. One new article proclaimed that same-sex marriage would be the wave of the future in the United States.
But Margot and Koko know that the future is far from certain, and Koko is holding her happiness in check until November. She feels like someone keeps crying wolf, and she and Margot are the villagers who continue to be fooled. Margot wonders, “Will we be let down again?” She and Koko feel resigned to whatever happens in November. But they can’t forget the sting of the letter nullifying their 2004 civil ceremony in legalese. It was a “big downer,” Margot says, particularly the word “null.”
Both hope that their June wedding will be the last. Even if they lose marriage equality in November and then regain it, they’re not sure they’d marry yet again.
After all, nothing can compare to their full-blown 2002 commitment ceremony at the Brazil Room in Tilden Park, where they celebrated their five-year relationship. A Berkeley pastor officiated. Each woman had three “best dykes.” And 150 guests witnessed the proceedings from chairs on the lawn. A lavish banquet followed.
That ceremony changed the way Koko’s parents viewed Margot and the relationship. After tempestuous phone conversations and requests to cancel or downsize the plans, Koko’s mother came from Taiwan to attend the event, where she sobbed noisily for a long time. She said she was happy that Koko had found someone to take care of her and was touched by a video showing the brides as children. The mother finally understood that Koko was a lifelong lesbian, not someone in a phase. And Koko’s father announced that he would rewrite his will to include Margot, just as he had included a son-in-law.
Koko and Margot regard this powerful event as the wedding, and they base their anniversary on that day. After all, September 2, 2002 was when they started to feel married. All three ceremonies have meant a lot to them, but not equally. The civil ceremonies conferred a sense of public validation and had legal ramifications, which aren’t insignificant, now that Koko and Margot have a child. In fact, Koko’s pregnancy in 2004 partly motivated their San Francisco City Hall nuptials; Margot thought back to her “old-fashioned, Christian upbringing” and proposed to Koko, figuring that the child should be born in wedlock. Margot adopted Megan, but they have different last names, so Margot worries about having her parental status doubted whenever the family travels. She brings along Megan’s birth certificate, which bears both mothers’ names. Margot will do this even if marriage equality prevails in November; most states will not recognize the legitimacy of the marriage.
Within a month, Koko and Margot have attended four same-sex weddings; their friends are rushing to marry before November. At one such ceremony, the pastor said, “We’re doing this legally.” Koko thought to herself in wonderment, “Legally! That’s right!” It’s still sinking in, and it fills her with pride that her legally married status is comparable to her sister’s. Koko says, “It feels real. But of course, we’re always trying to prepare ourselves for anything so that we won’t be too upset.”
Eve Kushner (www.evekushner.com) is a freelance writer in Berkeley with a passion for profiles. She also writes about architecture and kanji (a Japanese writing system). Her book Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters is forthcoming this fall.
Backyard bliss: Dawn Kaiser (left) laughs during her April 2004 wedding to Sherri Sokeland Kaiser (right) in their Berkeley backyard. Performing the ceremony is Judge William A. Fletcher, from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Photo courtesy Sherri Sokeland Kaiser and Dawn Kaiser.
Here’s the sequence of events at the center of a national debate that still stirs the country:
1993 (May) Hawaii’s Supreme Court rules in the case of Baehr v. Lewin that Hawaii’s current marriage laws constitute discrimination and violate the equal protection clause of the Hawaii Constitution. In response, same-sex marriage foes vote to amend the state constitution to make same-sex marriage illegal. Spurred by Americans afraid that same-sex marriage will become legal, similar laws—called Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMAs)—pop up in states nationwide and even on the federal level.
1996 President Bill Clinton signs the federal Defense of Marriage Act that remains in place today.
2000 Californians pass their own Defense of Marriage Act, Proposition 22, by a large margin. Proposition 22 enacts a state statute but does not amend the California Constitution.
2003 Massachusetts becomes the first state to legalize same-sex marriage after the State Supreme Court rules that it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.
2004 (February 12) Ignoring Proposition 22, Mayor Gavin Newsom begins issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at San Francisco City Hall. Gay and straight people throughout the Bay Area celebrate the marriages as a victory for civil rights, even as the ceremonies fuel a renewed national firestorm over the issue.
2004 (March–August) The California Supreme Court stops the San Francisco weddings in March but holds off on deciding whether the marriages that have already happened are valid. In August 2004, the court decides that Newsom was not allowed to license gay weddings and that the thousands of couples who wed in 2004 are not married—and never have been.
2004 (May) Same-sex weddings begin in Massachusetts.
2004–2008 California same-sex marriage supporters and opponents fight it out in court, until the case reaches the California Supreme Court.
2008 (May 15) Four of seven justices on California’s Supreme Court—across the street from San Francisco City Hall—rule that California laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman, including laws enacted through Proposition 22, violate the promise of equality in the California Constitution. This historic decision makes California the first state after Massachusetts to deem same-sex marriage legal.
2008 (June 16) The ruling becomes final, and same-sex couples are free to marry—again.
2008 (July) The group ProtectMarriage.com collects enough signatures to place Proposition 8 on the November ballot. Proposition 8 would amend the state constitution to say: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
Lucky number: Gerry Wiener (left) and Scott Riddle (right) hold hands after their 8/8/08 wedding attended by more than 100 friends and family members in Tilden Park. Photo courtesy Gerry Wiener and Scott Riddle.
Licensed to wed: Margot Yapp (left) and Koko Lin (right) wait at the the counter for their marriage license at the Alameda County Clerk’s office at Oakland City Hall in June. Their daughter, Megan, stands with them. Photo courtesy Koko Lin and Margot Yapp.