Making history, two ‘I do’s at a time
For many campus couples, the love that dares not speak its name has decided to shout ‘Just married!’
| 03 March 2004
Their stories typically begin with an early-morning rising, then a journey over the Bay Bridge in the dark to wait in long lines for a piece of paper.
None of the lesbian or gay faculty and staff at Berkeley who recently secured a marriage license from the San Francisco City Clerk knew whether it would grant them the same legal rights as heterosexual couples enjoy, but all of them wanted to be part of history in the making.
Victoria Ortiz, dean of students at Boalt Hall School of Law, married her partner of 17 years, Jennifer Elrod. “Even though the legal status of this is as yet unclear,” she says, “it feels like we have stepped into a position of full-fledged citizenship, whereas before we were second-class citizens.”
Descriptions of the ambience at City Hall that newlywed gays and lesbians shared with the Berkeleyan echoed one another. Couples took photos of new friends they made in line, shared bouquets, and clapped for everyone — straight or gay — who walked out of City Hall in a state of wedlock. Volunteers moved through the crowd to help with paperwork and offer encouragement.
“The atmosphere was electric,” said Joyce Jennings, executive assistant to the vice chancellor of budget and finance. “People were joyful and laughing,” she continued. “You could feel the love in the air.”
Jennings’ wife, Patty Mead, also works on campus as an information-systems manager in Space Management and Capital Programs. The two women, who have been together since 1999, held a private ceremony in 2001 with a hundred family members and friends. When they heard about the gay nuptials in San Francisco, the couple rushed to City Hall to be part of history. “You could feel and taste the hope,” says Mead of the mood among those who stood waiting for their marriage licenses.
Families with children, older couples, people of color, others in wheelchairs, and even people accompanied by both sets of parents all queued for their turn to say, “I do.” Holly Parrish, a student-affairs officer at Boalt Hall, and her partner of nine years, Christine Baker, a photojournalist for a North Bay newspaper, were one of 320 couples turned away on Valentine’s Day after a four-and-a-half-hour wait.
“The one thing that struck me, being there all day,” says Parrish, “is that these many kinds of people shared the desire to proclaim publicly their love for and devotion to another human being. I can’t imagine who would find that threatening.”
Parrish and Baker returned to San Francisco two days later, at 4 a.m. They stood in a torrential downpour for six hours, wearing garbage bags to stay dry while waiting for their number to be called (they were 178th in line that day) so they could exchange vows.
The wait is (almost) over
Friday, Feb. 13, was cold and wet. Despite the inhospitable elements, Pamela Brown reports, people in line were discussing their reasons for being at City Hall, the length of their relationships, and the different ways they had celebrated them in the past. Brown and her partner of nearly eight years, Shauna Rajkowski, are both Cal alums.
“We wanted to get a license before an injunction was filed,” says Brown, an assistant director in Planning and Analysis. Mabel Teng, San Francisco’s Assessor/Recorder, came outside and reassured the crowd, says Brown, who quotes Teng as telling the people in line, “Don’t you worry. We’ll have you married by the end of the day.”
When asked how long she and her partner waited in line, Emilie Bergmann, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, replied ruefully, “31 years.” In fact, she and Charlotte Rubens waited five hours to get their license.
“We were pretty married before,” says Rubens, the head of Inter-Library Services, referring to their three decades together (they celebrated their most recent anniversary on Feb. 15). When Rubens read in the newspaper that City Hall was staying open on Saturday, Valentine’s Day, she says she thought, ‘This might be the only opportunity for us to get married.’
Bergmann describes traditional marriage as “oppressive to women,” explaining “that’s why, as a lesbian and a feminist, I’d never considered it before.” Nonetheless, while they waited in line, she says, “we were walking on air.”
Two simple words
Jon Bain-Chekal, who works as an organizational consultant for the Center for Organizational Effectiveness, said that the decision to say ‘I do’ to his partner of ten years, Mark Chekal-Bain, was “a nice personal confirmation.” The two, both Cal alumni, had already exchanged vows in a ceremony with family and friends in 1999. They also registered as domestic partners with the City of Berkeley the previous year, and with the state when that option became available.
Bain-Chekal says that his husband, who works for the Department of Justice, asked him after they got their license, “When will our relationship not be considered a political act?”
And indeed without exception the newlyweds we spoke with characterized obtaining their marriage license as both a personal and political act. Margaret Chester, a senior store supervisor for Communications and Network Services/Information Systems and Techno-logy, served in the U.S. military for 12 years, “so I know what it feels like to have to be closeted,” she says.
Chester married Carol Cooper, who owns a pet-grooming service. A couple for five years, the two women had registered as domestic partners in 1999. Though Cooper had expressed the desire to have a ceremony, says Chester, “until there was some legal validity to it, I wasn’t interested.”
“The sheer number of gay people there to commit to each other” drew Chester and Cooper to S.F. City Hall. Then she found herself caught up in the proceedings: “I’m not a particularly touchy-feely person, but this was incredible.”
“We have a child,” says Patty Mead, referring to the 13-year-old son she raises with Joyce Jennings. “We pay taxes, yet we cannot legally share in the benefits other people have.” Those painful political realities faded momentarily, once the ceremony began. “I became very emotional,” says Mead. “I had tears in my eyes.”
“If ever there was an experience that illustrates the feminist declaration that the personal is political,” says Boalt’s Ortiz, “it’s this one.”
The toast of the town
The celebratory spirit didn’t stop at City Hall. As Jon Bain-Chekal and Mark Chekal-Bain were riding the BART train back home to Berkeley, a woman approached the two of them, seemingly at random, and wordlessly handed them a rose.
Although Charlotte Rubens didn’t announce her marriage at work, her staff learned her news and was, she says, “wonderful” to her. Colleagues walked down the middle library aisle singing the bridal march, then presented her with a bouquet of flowers.
“Everybody at work was thrilled for me and wanted to see my pictures,” says Joyce Jennings. A similar outpouring of happiness and support was experienced by Patty Mead: “People came by my cubicle smiling and said, ‘Way to go!’ The support of the people here has been stupendous.”
Margaret Chester’s (mostly straight) rowing club fêted her and Carol Cooper with a ceremony on the pier before practice. “They held up a canopy of oars for us to walk through,” she says, and then everyone celebrated with early-morning mimosas.
When Cooper and Chester were out dining with another lesbian couple who had recently gotten their marriage license, the foursome ordered glasses of bubbly to celebrate. Then, Chester says, “a straight couple at the next table sent over two bottles of champagne.”
They can’t take that away from me
Most everyone agreed that being married is different — sometimes “surprisingly” so. “That’s a bonus I didn’t really expect,” says Holly Parrish. “I thought we were as committed to each other as we could be.”
“There was something about the ceremony here that was more moving to me,” says Joyce Jennings, comparing her City Hall experience to her private wedding in 2001. “The message this time was, ‘Your committed relationship is just as important as anyone else’s.’”
The state of California may yet put a halt to San Francisco’s gay marriages and invalidate the 3,400 licenses issued so far. “I will be very sad if that happens,” says Jon Bain-Chekal. “I don’t believe in the concept of separate but equal. I think Martin Luther King, Jr. put it well when he said, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’”
“As far as I’m concerned,” says Victoria Ortiz, “we’re now married and we’ll always be married. Because it’s so much more than just a piece of paper.”