Monday, February 23, 2009

Pursuit of Equality: A Review

One of Gavin Newsom's first acts as mayor of San Francisco, just 35 days into office, was to challenge California's marriage and family code limiting marriage to heterosexual couples by granting licenses to same-sex couples and marrying them in City Hall. Starting with Del Martin, 83, and Phyllis Lyon, 79, on February 12, 2004, at 11:06 a.m., the Newsom administration eventually married over 4000 gay and lesbian couples before they were forced to go back to withholding the right on March 11, 2004, at 2:33pm. (That’s what you can do with films like this – savor the details.) Newsom understood this was civil disobedience. He had his eyes on the long term.

Most gay people and local Bay Area residents know the rough outline. A few – not many – know the names of Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, and possibly even Mabel Tang, the city Assessor, who performed the first marriage. But almost nobody knows what they look like and how they felt about what they were doing.

Pursuit of Equality, a film documentary that came out in 2005 but apparently is only now building steam, shows what documentary filmmaking can do – it can put faces to names, reveal the spirit behind the law, and make the story about real people. The film is filled with rich detail – the Bible-waving folk who insist God’s law (their crystal clear understanding of it) should run the country, and not the California Constitution; the duel between those singing “I’ve decided to follow Jesus” and those singing The Star-Spangled Banner, 83-year-old Del and 79-year-old Phyllis being informed by the bureaucracy about family planning issues, tears running down the cheeks of a 24-year-old straight son whose mother and her partner are turned away on March 11, 2004 – and how he chose to look on the bright side and observe how the hardship brought his family closer together.

This event is a legend in the making. It begins with Nancy Pelosi sending Gavin Newsom a ticket to George W. Bush’s inauguration and Gavin’s reaction to Bush’s decision to politicize gay marriage. Newsom came home determined to fight it. The film has a marvelous shot of Teddy Kennedy, too, sitting in the joint session showing obvious disgust at Bush. Those who doubt Newsom’s personal investment in the decision need to see the film before drawing too many conclusions.

Once back from Washington, Newsom lost no time. His aids told him all he had to do was change “bride” and “groom” to “applicant 1” and “applicant 2” on the licences and he was off and running.

Besides putting a face on those involved, the film helps you keep track of the complicated twists and turns that month when it all began – the crowds overwhelming City Hall, the “cease and desist” order which was ignored, the Trial Court decision supporting Newsom and declaring the ban on marriage equality unconstitutional, the Appeals Court’s overturning of that decision and the voiding of the marriages, which is where the film ends. Not shown is what was to come when finally (OK, temporarily finally), on May 15, 2008, the Supreme Court determined the Trial Court decision should stand. The Supremes, as they are lovingly called in these parts, voided the Appeals Court’s decision, and the couples came back to do it all once more. That number has now reached 18,000, and this time, the marriages were not voided. I’m getting ahead of the story here, but just to bring things up to date, most people know what happened next. The State threw together a referendum known as Prop. 8 which passed by 52%, overturning the Supreme Court Decision.

This too turns out to be far from the end of the story, since the Supreme Court is meeting in just over a week on March 5 to decide whether the state had a right to amend the constitution to remove rights of its citizens to marry they themselves had declared a constitutional right. Are you running with me, Jesus?

Many will want to focus on the present and on the future. The 2005 documentary did not get much publicity – I only just discovered it a week ago. But it is a gem of a story of the inner workings of San Francisco City Hall at a momentous time for gays and lesbians.

Since the story is ongoing, and since the Oscar awards for Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn for their work on Milk is now part of the fight to overturn Prop. 8, the context continues to shift.

But if you want to see the beginning, this is the place to find it.

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