People of the Year: The Mayors: During a Year in Which Marriage Rights for Gay and Lesbian Couples Played a Major Role on the Political Stage, Three Mayors Were Willing to Lead the Way by Taking Risks and Challenging the System

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The incredible scene of thousands of gay couples publicly celebrating their weddings at city halls and county courthouses across the country defined 2004 for many Americans as the year of same-sex marriage. There was a lot of laughter and tears; there were parties and there were protests. And it was all due in large part to the actions of some unlikely crusaders who took risks and challenged the system to do what they thought was right.

"You don't deny people their full rights," says San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in response to President Bush's support of a constitutional ban on gay marriage during his State of the Union speech. "You don't deny people equal protection. That's my belief, and I can't fall short of that."

Newsom, 37, wasn't the only mayor who jeopardized his political career or even faced criminal charges for the advancement of marriage. Jason West, the 27-year-old mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., a small village about 75 miles north of Manhattan, soon followed Newsom's lead and married 25 gay couples before he was ordered to stop. And John Shields, the 61-year-old openly gay mayor of nearby Nyack, N.Y., with his partner, Bob Streams, joined nine other gay couples who are parties to a high-profile lawsuit to win the fight to marry in New York State.

Meet The Advocate's 2004 people of the year: the mayors. Sounding and acting a lot more like gay rights activists than public servants, Newsom, West, and Shields share a similar passion for civil rights, valuing consistency and action. And all three reject the idea of civil unions as an unacceptable second-class status for gay Americans. During a one-month period in February and March they provided gay and lesbian couples with hope, security, and the chance to be a part of something they had long desired: the institution of marriage.

And they took heat for it. Some members of Newsom's own Democratic Party accused trim of giving evangelicals a reason to go to the polls and thus costing John Kerry the presidential election. But the handsome and congenial mayor calmly shrugs that off. The state's constitution requires equality in marriage, and that's all that matters, he argues. Besides, he adds, Kerry lost because he wasn't a strong candidate. "Bill Clinton said it best years ago," Newsom says. "The American people always support strong and wrong versus weak and right. The Bush administration did an extraordinary job to make it appear that Kerry was weak. That is what swung this election, not the issue of gay marriage."

West agrees. "If you're always going to be afraid of a backlash, you're always going to be afraid to take action of any sort," he says. "Our opponents won. But it's not because of a backlash. It's because they outorganized us."

"Tell me a social issue where anybody ever said 'This is the right time'?" adds Shields. "They always cop out by saying this is not the right time. Kerry lost the election for a lot of reasons. And President Bush is the one who put this issue on the front burner."

Indeed, the marriage equality movement in 2004 wasn't limited to the actions of these three men. Massachusetts became the first state to begin providing full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, and same-sex marriage lawsuits began working their way through the courts in over a half-dozen other states. And there were victories for the other side, including the passage of 13 state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.

It also was a year in which attitudes changed. The once-controversial notion of providing civil unions to gays suddenly became safe political ground for many politicians--even President Bush. And there were other marriage crusaders who bear mention, including Sandoval County, N.M., clerk Victoria Dunlap and Multnomah County, Ore., commission chair Diane Linn--before being ordered to stop by courts, both risked their careers by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. …