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Truthdigger of the Week: Early Marriage Rights Champion Gavin Newsom

Posted on Jun 28, 2015

By Alexander Reed Kelly

    California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

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Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

People across the United States were taken by surprise Friday morning when the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Private citizens, celebrities and public officials celebrated the long-overdue recognition of the right of homosexual couples to enjoy the dignity and legal benefits of marriage.

In a list of milestones on the way to this historic decision, The Guardian traced the effort to secure these rights back to 1924, when a German immigrant founded the Society for Human Rights in Chicago. Among the many acknowledged contributions was a 2004 order by then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to defy state law and issue marriage licenses to gay couples. In doing so, Newsom faced criticism from his party (Sen. Dianne Feinstein told him his actions could influence the outcome of the presidential election) and risked arrest and the loss of his office.

More than 4,000 couples were wed before the licenses were annulled a month later, but the move brought national attention to the quest for equality. Following Massachusetts, where such unions have been taking place since 2004, 36 states and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex marriage during the decade that passed between then and the Supreme Court’s decision Friday. (A Supreme Court decision in 2013 allowed the marriages to resume in California.)

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Newsom’s argument was similar to that made by the five justices in their majority opinion: The equal protection clause in California’s Constitution gave him the authority to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. New to the position of mayor, he had said he was inspired to recognize the marriages after hearing President George W. Bush say same-sex marriages needed to be prevented, possibly with a constitutional amendment. Newsom’s decision was opposed by then-governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reduced the issue to a legal matter, saying the city of San Francisco needed to “stop traveling down this dangerous path of ignoring the rule of law.”

Newsom eventually agreed to abide by an order by the California Supreme Court to observe the existing marriage statutes. President Bush reaffirmed his commitment “to protect marriage between a man and a woman,” saying he “watched carefully what’s happening in San Francisco.”

But Newsom was less concerned with criticism from the right than from his party colleagues. “I was more disgusted by my own party’s lack of support than from Republican criticism,” he told The San Francisco Examiner in early 2014. “The only exception was Chicago’s mayor, Richard M. Daley, who said he’d do the same thing if he were the president of Cook County.

“Even by 2006, and it was crickets out there,” Newsom continued. “Literally, people were talking about dogs marrying cats in some circles. Then in 2012, we hit a tipping point. The winds started to shift and state after state started flipping on same-sex marriage.”

Newsom praised the Supreme Court’s decision last week but cautioned that landmark civil rights decisions have been opposed and overturned before.

“I celebrate today’s decision but recognize that the fight for equality is not over,” he said in a statement. “Far from it. As we look to the future, I urge those with whom I have walked this march to continue forward with vigilance and resolve.” Also in the statement, Newsom called for better protections for LGBT employees who are vulnerable to workplace discrimination. 

Newsom’s historical role in Friday’s decision was acknowledged by current San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in a speech at City Hall.

“At long last, marriage equality in the U.S.,” Lee said. “We started that movement right here when Gavin Newsom dared to marry loving same-sex couples right under this dome. We are proud of our city leading the nation and even the world on this issue.”

Truthdig is proud of San Francisco and of Newsom too, and everyone else who has helped in the struggle for the legal rights that same-sex couples deserve. Friday’s decision marks the tearing down of one of the walls that stand between large numbers of people and their happiness. For that victory, we honor Gavin Newsom as our Truthdigger of the Week.


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