On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District upheld Chief Judge Vaughn Walker’s 2010 decision that California’s Proposition 8, banning all same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional. Does this mean that gays and lesbians can go back to San Francisco City Hall now to say their “I do’s?” Not yet.
For decades, San Francisco’s City Hall, the building at the epicenter for gay marriage (and itself one of the most beautiful structures in the land) has been alive, from Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with brides floating around San Francisco’s City Hall like butterflies — as many as 2,000 a month, many in diaphanous white. Each is orbited by a groom and a coterie of camera-wielding guests, bouquets spilling sweet scents. All the brides are women, all grooms men. Ceremonies are generally discreet. Before Californians passed Proposition 8 in 2008 and shut down same sex marriage in the Golden State, a good many City Hall weddings were downright exultant.
For some time now, I have been in the habit of dropping by City Hall to play uninvited guest at a wedding or two, though it isn’t nearly as exuberant now, in both spirit and costume, as before the ban. Still, on one recent visit, 10 young harpists happened to be offering a free noontime concert at the bottom of the grand staircase in the rotunda beneath the fifth-largest dome in the world. The music echoed out into all that French Renaissance splendor.
Couples are free to choose a place for their ceremony. At the top of that impossibly sweeping staircase, just outside the Board of Supervisor’s chambers, is the favorite spot. One day, I positioned myself next to the bust of Harvey Milk (with that boffo smile you can never forget), the gay supervisor who, as much as anyone, put San Francisco at the forefront of the gay rights movement. A judge performed one ceremony after another; it might have been 1954, when Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe right here, or years later, when my husband and I said our vows just down the hall in a private chamber.
City Hall is the epicenter of Civic Center Plaza, surrounded by a phalanx of monumental buildings: the Opera House, Symphony Hall, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. That Bill Graham, he of the permanent five o’clock shadow and the foul mouth, the crusty promoter who rocked the ’60s with The Who and the Grateful Dead, for two. It is that kind of a crossroads, culturally and politically. In important ways, City Hall has been my epicenter, too.
In the spring of 1960, fresh from the Midwest, I was living in a fourth-floor walk-up on Nob Hill with a bay window and a view punctuated by City Hall, its dome higher by 14 inches than the U.S. Capitol’s. That May, a group of Berkeley students, protesting a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, lined up on the Grand Staircase; police turned high-powered fire hoses on them, washing them down those marble stairs. Watching it on television, I was instantly politicized. The next day, 5,000 people massed in the plaza, most of them, like me, determined to take a stand.
In the following years, I often found myself in the plaza at civil rights and Vietnam War protests, candlelight memorials — sometimes with Joan Baez’ voice echoing out into the night — or on my way to the opera or a symphony. I keep a dollar tucked into a pocket to buy a Street Sheet from one of the homeless who are part of that scene.
In 1978, when Supervisor Dan White shot Supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone, and Diane Feinstein announced the tragedy in a quivering voice, we all went into shock. Followed by astonishment when the jury returned a verdict of voluntary manslaughter — not guilty enough to prevent the “White Night” riots that erupted around City Hall.
The 1906 earthquake leveled an early version of City Hall; the 1989 Loma Prieta quake twisted the dome like a bottle cap and moved it 2 inches. It took three years to take the building apart and put it back together again, the Tennessee Pink marble polished, wood cleaned, glass ceilings revealed so daylight can once again flood into courts on either side of the rotunda. Today, the massive structure rests on some 600 “base insulators” made of rubber and stainless steel, which will allow it to rock and roll 2 feet in any direction when the next quake hits.
On my last drop by, I spent an hour or so eavesdropping on weddings, smiling on cue, trying to imagine how a beefy guy on the far side of 40 hitched up with a delicate young Asian bride, picture perfect in her billowing wedding gown. Then I joined a tour led by a docent who showed us a photograph of the original City Hall, explained that construction started in l879, that it was 27 years in the making, only to collapse and fall minutes after the great dome was lifted into place … whoof, like that.
“Can anyone guess why it fell?” she asked.
Having some knowledge of San Francisco’s gilded age, I spoke up: “Graft.”
She paused. “You’re the first person to give that answer,” she said, “and you’re right.”
I was, in fact, sorry that I was right. I remain sorry about the student protesters washed down the staircase, about the loss of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. I was sad, too, that 52 percent of the people of California decided in 2008 to ban same sex marriage. Then, in 2010, I was encouraged when Judge Walker declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional. And again yesterday when the Ninth Circuit upheld his decision. Still, it is good to remember that this latest decision, as the legal experts put it, “was narrowly cast,” which means it is going to require more hearings focusing on the intricacies of California law and the rights of domestic partnerships, before it gets to the Supreme Court. Even that highest court in the land can avoid, as they seem wont to do, making one big, grand sweeping ruling giving any American the right to marry anyone else, gender notwithstanding.
Still, like earthquakes and sunrise, that day will surely come, and when it does, I think I’ll plant myself next to the bust of Harvey Milk and maybe even take a flower lei for him to wear in celebration.