Outlaw Vows; A Brash Young Mayor Issues Marriage Licenses to Same-Sex Couples and Opens a New Front in America's Culture Wars

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Byline: Karen Breslau and Brad Stone, With Debra Rosenberg and Tamara Lipper

Moved by news footage of thousands of same-sex couples waiting patiently in the rain for hours for the chance to get a marriage license, Mike Trevinson boarded a plane in Dallas last Thursday and flew to San Francisco. On his way to city hall, Trevinson bought six dozen roses. Marrying his own longtime partner was not an option. "He comes from a small town and no one would understand," says Trevinson, 35. So instead he contented himself as a witness to the joy of strangers, handing long-stemmed beauties to couples as they climbed the marble staircase under the grand rotunda to recite their vows. "I just wanted to make a contribution," says Trevinson, a writer. "These people desperately need support."

As if reliving its glory days as a counter-culture mecca in the 1960s, San Francisco was again the place to be. The city's Winter of Love was launched just before Valentine's Day, when Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city clerk to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of California state law. By the end of last week, nearly 3,200 same-sex couples had wed at city hall, and neither Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supports domestic partnerships but not full marriage rights for gays, nor the blizzard of lawsuits filed by conservative groups could rein in the rebels at city hall. Newsom's brash move vaulted San Francisco to the front line in the ever-widening marriage wars and set the stage for a legal showdown that could result in California's joining Massachusetts, Vermont and Hawaii, whose state Supreme Courts have ruled in recent years that bans on same-sex unions are illegal.

By the weekend, the gay-marriage brushfires seemed to be spreading, with mayors in Chicago, Salt Lake City and Plattsburgh, N.Y., chiming in that they, too, like the idea of same-sex marriage licenses (although only San Francisco, with its unique status as a city and a county, could actually issue them). And officials in Sandoval County, N.M., managed to issue several dozen licenses before being shut down by the state's attorney general. The ripples also reached the White House, where President George W. Bush has been under increasing pressure from conservatives to actively support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Last week Bush said he was "troubled" by the events in San Francisco and that they would "obviously" influence his decision. Even Laura Bush, normally loath to enter a fray, allowed that gay marriage was a "very, very shocking issue" for many Americans.

Indeed, it could well emerge as the defining cultural issue of the 2004 election, and that has many Democrats nervous. Despite the sentiment in the Bay Area, a new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that only 23 percent of registered voters support full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, with an additional 24 percent supporting gay civil unions or partnerships that stop short of marriage. Approval rates are highest among younger voters.

Presidential front runner John Kerry has been forced into a painfully nuanced position on events in his home state of Massachusetts, where gay marriage becomes legal in May. Kerry says he supports efforts by lawmakers in Boston to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, while opposing a similar action at the federal level. Some Democrats are even blaming Newsom, heralded as a rising star in the party, for forcing a losing issue onto front pages around the country.

A heterosexual, Jesuit-educated, Irish Catholic son of a prominent state judge, Newsom is an unlikely bomb-thrower. The wealthy 36-year-old wine and restaurant entrepreneur with movie-star looks took office only seven weeks ago. He received at best moderate support from the city's gay community in his narrow December victory over a Green Party opponent. But Newsom stunned even his closest aides when he returned from Bush's State of the Union address last month, saying he was appalled by the president's comments about preserving the "sanctity of marriage," if necessary, by a constitutional amendment. …