California 2008
Eager couples flock to county clerks' offices

By Heather Knight, Marisa Lagos,Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writers

Marital bliss, same-sex style, broke out all over the Bay Area on Tuesday as every county clerk's office in the state began issuing marriage licenses to gays and lesbians.

Eager couples began exchanging vows as soon as government offices opened - and from Marin and San Mateo to San Francisco and Contra Costa counties, an air of ebullient celebration radiated while couples young and old fulfilled a nuptial dream many had thought could never come true.

A smattering of protesters tried to dampen the festivities in some counties, but generally they were either ignored or shouted down.

"This is legal, and we're equal, but the most important thing is that I get to spend the rest of my life with the man I love," said Jeffrey Halpern, 43, who with Hank Donat, 41, was the first to tie the knot in San Francisco.

Wearing suits and red-rose boutonnieres, Donat and Halpern rushed into City Hall when the clerk's office opened, giddily running though the ropes set up to control the crowd of about 400 couples, friends, relatives and protesters. "Lawful marriage to the perfect partner is paradise on earth," Donat said.

Outside City Hall, the festivities turned the streets into a virtual wedding reception. Onlookers and family members of couples clogged the area, many cheering the soon-to-be spouses as they arrived. A drum circle pounded out a rhythm, the Gay Men's Chorus serenaded waiting couples, and tourists asked newlyweds to pose for pictures.

Protesters gone this time

Inside, it was a media frenzy. Two plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage case that made it to the state Supreme Court, Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, had to physically push reporters aside so their fathers could escort the grooms to their ceremony.

Though protesters showed up at City Hall on Monday night when same-sex marriages became legal, none appeared Tuesday for the first full day of ceremonies. Many opponents of same-sex marriage, both in San Francisco and elsewhere, apparently preferred to let their legal actions do the talking - and on that score, they lost a round on Tuesday.

The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco rejected a conservative group's last-ditch effort to put the same-sex marriages on hold until Nov. 4. That's when voters will consider an initiative that would write a ban on same-sex marriage into the state Constitution. The Campaign for California Families unsuccessfully argued that handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples would be a waste of time if voters reinstate the marriage ban.

No sense of rush like in 2004

By the end of the day, 211 licenses were issued in San Francisco - 152 to same-sex couples from local neighborhoods and from states as far away as New York and Oklahoma. That tally is expected to rise to more than 800 by month's end.

In spite of the bubbly atmosphere, there was not the sense of rush there was in 2004 when Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed nearly 4,000 gay and lesbian weddings. Those marriages were eventually nullified, but the mayor's act led to a series of court actions and ultimately the state Supreme Court decision that granted marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Newsom kept a low profile throughout the day, marrying only three couples in private ceremonies in his office.

For some, Tuesday's commitment was just the latest of many. Gays and lesbians have been holding bonding ceremonies for years in lieu of actual marriages, and this week's were simply the most legal ones.

Carol Cantwell, 42, and wife Rachel Lanzerotti, 38, for instance, have been together 13 years, and Tuesday's ceremony in San Francisco was the third time they made vows to stay together. They also held a commitment event in 2000 and were part of Newsom's marriage whirl four years ago.

"It feels more serious this time because we know it's real," Cantwell said.

County clerk takes his vows

Across the bay in Contra Costa County, the man charged with overseeing marriages took a turn at reciting vows himself.

With a heavy showing of police officers surrounding them for protection, county Clerk-Recorder Steve Weir and longtime partner John Hemm became the first gay couple married there. As Weir swiped his ATM card to pay the $85 marriage license fee, his hands shook.

"I'm doing great," Weir said. "I've experienced so many emotions over the past 33 days, and it's all been fantastic."

The day's excitement was so pervasive, it even swept a pair of visiting Cleveland women into becoming the first same-sex couple to marry in San Mateo County. They were in the Bay Area for clinical psychology residency training when they heard news reports of what was going on and decided to head to the clerk's office.

"We are legally married!" Lisa Shapiro, 46, said somewhat incredulously, holding the hand of wife Beth Shapiro, 44, after a ceremony on the steps of the clerk's office building. The couple wore jeans, button-down denim shirts and beaming smiles.

"These were the nicest outfits we brought," Shapiro said.
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