Comes Naturally #146 (March 19, 2004):
Not Playing by the Rules

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COMES NATURALLY #146 (March 19, 2004)
Copyright © 2004 David Steinberg


When I first read about Gavin Newsom throwing open the doors of San Francisco's County Clerk Office to lesbians and gays, a rush of adrenaline swept over my body. It was a sensation both familiar and foreign, a feeling I remembered like an old friend I hadn't seen in a long, long time. It was the exhilaration of watching someone get fed up with something just plain wrong, step outside the confines of business as usual, and say, "I'm going to do something about this, even if it means not playing by the rules."

It wasn't just the shock of Newsom's gesture that set my body buzzing. It was the way 83-year-old Del Martin looked embracing Phyllis Lyon, her partner of 51 years; the photo of the long line of people wrapping around San Francisco City Hall like an archetypal snake; the exuberant joy that flooded the faces of couple after couple in news pictures; the glee, the celebration, the obvious sheer power of energy set free after years, often decades, of confinement.

Volunteers were staffing everything from the Clerk's windows to police security as San Francisco's marriage office stayed open through the long holiday weekend. People were flying to San Francisco from around the country and around the world. People in the rainy streets were sharing flowers, coffee, umbrellas, blankets, laughter, and community. There was the unmistakable taste of hope and possibility, strength, and collective -- well -- pride, as they say, in the air.

It was intoxicating, even vicariously. "This is powerful. This is going to spread," I muttered out loud.

That's when I knew why the excitement in my body felt so familiar. It felt like one of those historical moments when something clicks, when time and energy and frustration and opportunity come together to move a large group of people to action, all at the same time. It felt like a time when people stop feeling hopeless, when the possibility of change moves people to do things they would ordinarily not even consider.

It felt like a movement.

A lot has happened since February 12, but it still feels like a movement.

On February 1, 1960, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond, four freshmen at North Carolina's Agricultural and Technical College, walked into the F. W. Woolworth store in downtown Greensboro, sat down at the "Whites Only" lunch counter, and tried to order something to eat. When they were refused service, instead of leaving or moving to the stand-up counter reserved for "Coloreds" they remained seated at the counter. They stayed there until the store closed.

The next day, together with other A&T students, they came back to the same lunch counter, and requested service again. Again they were denied, and again they stayed seated in the places reserved for whites until closing time. On the third day, more students returned. On the fourth there were still more, including three white women from a school nearby. On day five, over 300 people requested service and the sit-in spread to a second lunch counter down the street. Police arrested 45 students and charged them with trespassing, but that only increased the students' determination. A boycott was organized of all the segregated lunch counters in Greensboro. Businesses began to feel the economic pinch. Word of the sit-ins spread beyond Greensboro, and students in other cities began sit-ins of their own.

In July 1960, the stores in Greensboro gave in and desegregated their lunch counters. McCain, McNeil, Blair and Richmond walked into Woolworth's and were served food and drink. A new form of protest had been born that would become a mainstay of the civil rights movement, a vehicle that gave people throughout the South a powerful, nonviolent way to work effectively for change.

The four Greensboro freshmen who decided to sit-in at Woolworth's had no idea that what they were about to do would change history. McCain has said he expected only to be arrested, beaten, or worse. But they had decided that "enough is enough," that they needed to do something beyond acquiescing to all the injustice around them. Their quiet, deliberate, understated act of civil disobedience launched a grassroots movement that permanently changed the politics of race in the U.S.

Gavin Newsom probably had no more idea than the Greensboro freshmen that his gesture of support for lesbians and gays -- a response, he says, to Bush's reference to a Constitutional Amendment in his State of the Union address -- would set the whole country on its ear. But it seems that the outrage Newsom felt at Bush's remarks was shared by many, and not just by lesbians and gays. When Bush reacted to the rebellion in San Francisco by throwing the Constitutional Amendment issue into the political ring, the anger and frustration that had been brewing under the surface for roughly half the country came boiling to the surface. A national revolt was set in motion. Enough is enough. Finally.

It's been a month since Gavin Newsom's act of municipal disobedience. A gesture that could easily have faded into thin air has taken root in the news, and in people's consciousness everywhere. As I write this, Multnomah County, Ore., and Ithaca, N.Y., continue to issue marriage licenses to all couples requesting them, regardless of sexual orientation. More than 2,350 licenses have been issued in Portland to date. Benton County, Ore., will follow suit on March 24. Seattle, San Jose, and Kofi Annan at the United Nations have issued proclamations recognizing same-sex marriages for employees seeking marriage benefits.

City and county clerks in San Francisco, Sandoval County, N.M., New Paltz, N.Y., and Asbury Park, N.J., have all performed their own acts of municipal disobedience, issuing marriage licenses to lesbians and gays until ordered by courts or state attorneys general to cease and desist. San Francisco issued 4,037 licenses to same-sex couples before the California Supreme Court intervened.

The exuberance and empowerment that has shot through gay and lesbian communities from coast to coast has been monumental, and will not disappear or be forgotten, even when there are specific, local setbacks. Images of distinctly normal-looking lesbian and gay couples, gloriously in love, hugging and kissing and celebrating marriages they know may be overthrown, fill the nation's magazines and airwaves, humanizing the whole same-sex marriage issue, even to traditionalists. (There's something compelling to everyone about being in the presence of people who are obviously in love.) Rosie O'Donnell, California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, and folksinger Ronnie Gilbert fuse the personal and political by tying the knot to public acclaim. A Google web search for "gay marriage," now comes up with "about 3,170,000" online references.

The previously loyal Log Cabin Republicans, largest group of gay Republicans in the nation, announces a $1 million ad campaign openly attacking the Bush administration. A Republican state representative in Michigan breaks with his party to vote his conscience, helping to defeat a proposed amendment to the Michigan constitution that would have banned same-sex marriage. Attempts to ban same-sex marriage in six other states (Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, and Oklahoma) are also defeated.

John Kerry draws applause from a predominantly African-American audience in Mississippi when he waxes eloquent on gay rights, drawing the parallel between Matthew Shepard "crucified on a fence in Wyoming only because he was gay" and James Byrd "dragged behind a truck down in Texas by chains... only because he's [African-American]."

There's no telling, of course, where things will go from here, especially with the cease and desist order from the California Supreme Court, and preliminary passage of a same-sex marriage ban in Massachusetts. Not all civil rights movements succeed, and the revolt, to date, speaks for only half the nation, at most. The county commissioners in Multnomah County who voted to permit same-sex marriages have received death threats. At least 15 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin) are considering constitutional amendments to prohibit same-sex marriage.

"I don't know of anything that disgusts me more than seeing two women get married on television, where one is dressed like a man and has a haircut like a man," State Senator Robert L. Venables, of Delaware, said last week.

"It could be anything once you say marriage is something other than what it is," Brooklyn (N.Y.) Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio agreed. "Why can't we have marriages between people and pets? I mean, pets really love their masters. Why can't we have a marriage so they could inherit their money? Marriage should only be between a man and a woman."

But times do change -- not smoothly, easily, or without temporary reversals. -- and the excitement and momentum for change generated by the events of the last month is very much alive and well.

In 1958, 96% of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. In 1997, 77% approved. "Connections and alliances [that are] so unnatural that God and nature seem to forbid them, should be prohibited by positive law, and be subject to no evasion," said Virginia Supreme Court Justice Christian in 1877, upholding that state's anti-miscegenation law. In 1912, Georgia Representative Seaborn Roddenberry proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to "exterminate [the] debasing, ultrademoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy" of interracial marriage, "the slavery of white women to black beasts."

A new Washington Post/ABC poll says that 53% of Americans oppose amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage (8% more than a month ago), and 52% disapprove of how George Bush is handling this issue. A CNN/Gallup poll shows that, although 61% of the people still oppose same-sex marriage, 54% now support same-sex civil unions, compared to only 40% as recently as last July, and 45% in February. Same-sex civil unions, considered radical as recently as Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination, is now even endorsed by some outspoken Christian conservatives as an acceptable alternative to same-sex marriage.

"Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt," Mahatma Gandhi once said. "The moment we cease to support the government, it dies a natural death."

Gandhi, of course, was something of a dreamer. On the other hand, he did throw the British out of India.

A slightly different version of this column first appeared in Metro Santa Cruz.

Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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