Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen

It was by computer-assigned chance that Hank Donat and Jeffrey Halpern became the first gay grooms of San Francisco.

When the news broke in May 2008 that same-sex marriage was legal in California, Donat and Halpern logged on to the San Francisco County Clerk's website to request a wedding appointment. Donat picked June 17, after a family house number, not realizing it would be the day the marriage floodgates opened, or that they'd be granted the first time slot.

Hank Donat (left) and Jeffrey Halpern, married in 2008, 
found themselves on the front 
page of the New York Times.
Norma Cordova
Hank Donat (left) and Jeffrey Halpern, married in 2008, found themselves on the front page of the New York Times.
Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis got married in 2004, and then helped shape the current movement when their marriage license was revoked a month later.
Norma Cordova
Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis got married in 2004, and then helped shape the current movement when their marriage license was revoked a month later.
Julia Adams (right) with wife Rebecca Prozan, a marriage-rights advocate who organized the first public civil-union ceremonies in 1996.
Norma Cordova
Julia Adams (right) with wife Rebecca Prozan, a marriage-rights advocate who organized the first public civil-union ceremonies in 1996.
Hank Donat and Jeffrey Halpern stand in front of City Hall, where their nuptials made them symbols of a movement.
Norma Cordova
Hank Donat and Jeffrey Halpern stand in front of City Hall, where their nuptials made them symbols of a movement.

As the couple — Donat in a gray suit, Halpern in navy blue — inked their paperwork that morning, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus crooned "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" outside. Their wedding, held beneath the Board of Supervisors chambers' grand wood columns, was one of the few private ceremonies of the day. Supervisor Aaron Peskin officiated. Their witnesses included a handful of reporters, microphones and notebooks ready.

After taking their vows, Donat and Halpern walked to the balcony overlooking City Hall's rotunda, where Donat tossed his bouquet of white roses into the crowd below. That image, punctuated by Donat's exuberant grin, ran on the front page of the New York Times the next morning, showing the nation what same-sex marriage looks like.

Donat prides himself on his homemaking skills; he goes by the nickname "the gay housewife." He oversaw a complete makeover of the couple's home near the University of San Francisco where, on a recent summer morning, a fire crackled on the plasma television and perfectly round chocolate-chip cookies nestled next to a pot of freshly brewed coffee — a scene of domestic tranquility.

When California's same-sex couples won marriage rights in 2008, Donat, like many gay people, believed his equal status was finally being recognized. As the campaign launched for Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban, many gay-marriage supporters didn't think it could win.

"When Prop. 8 came up, we thought it was the end of the discussion," he says. "It turned out to be the beginning of the discussion."

The passage of Prop. 8 not only ignited a national debate, it also sparked the largest grassroots movement in recent history. Although it disheartened many gay-marriage supporters, gay people took their anger, betrayal, and disappointment as a call to action.

Something changed in gay activism after the proposition passed, though. Sure, there was still old-school rallying in the streets, but strategies multiplied: Gays became more visible, coming out, talking with family and friends, engaging in face-to-face advocacy. Others took the fight to the courts, suing to demand equality. Meanwhile, the emergence of gay groups opposed to marriage exploded the idea of a cohesive "gay community."

Prop. 8 inspired a conversation about what it means to be gay in America like no other event before.

Three of Donat's paintings, done in Roy Lichtenstein's comic-book style, hang in his home office. In each one, Donat replaced Lichtenstein's pop-art heroines with Lucy Ricardo, who drowns rather than calling Ethel for help in one piece and greets Ricky at the door in another.

This is Donat's impeccably tidy home base for marriage-equality activism, a cause he first took up in 2001. He makes regular marriage-advocacy missions, speaking to groups across the U.S., Europe, and Australia. But he has also spent a lot of time closer to home, urging gays to come out, speak up, and be a positive force in others' lives.

"With 52 percent voting for Prop. 8, we didn't get all our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers. Gay people have said, 'We don't know anybody who voted for Prop. 8,' And we look at them and say, 'Yes, you do. The numbers bear out that you do,'" he says.

Prop. 8's win left many same-sex couples, married or not, feeling betrayed — not only by California at large, but by friends, family and neighbors.

"We were surprised and disappointed when our Christian friends, who come to San Francisco to have abortions and smoke pot, went back to Sacramento and voted against us," Donat says. "People who ate at our table, people whose kids I fed. We thought we knew where we stood."

Gays took to the streets in the days and weeks after Prop. 8 passed, not just in California but nationwide, says Anna Sorenson, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara who's researching the effects of California's marriage ban on the same-sex-marriage movement. New marriage-equality organizations cropped up like wildflowers. Many fizzled, while others merged with larger groups, making their numbers tough to track.

The grassroots nature of post-Prop. 8 activism was fed in part by the gay community's distrust of established organizations such as Equality California, which had raised millions of dollars for the failed "No on 8" campaign, Sorenson says.

Instead of tossing money at major-league advocacy groups, many gays made their lives into works of activism. Activities as simple as raking the lawn, going to work or picking up the kids became opportunities to show the mainstream that same-sex couplehood can be about as apple-pie as it gets. Every day brought the chance for conversations, or moments of visibility, that subtly changed people's minds.

Still, Equality California and other big agencies saw a groundswell of support around the Prop. 8 vote. Once it became clear that the marriage ban was leading in state polls, people volunteered to make phone calls and go door to door. That activism only intensified after it passed, says Cary Davidson, president of the board of directors of the Equality California Institute.

While more gays started organizing, others took the fight to the courts. Kristin Perry and Sandra Steir's lawsuit against California, which has wended its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, is just one example. Couples in Nevada, Illinois, and New Jersey are challenging same-sex marriage bans in their states, while 17 other cases are challenging aspects of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Watching these movements, it's easy to think that marriage is the goal of a single "gay community." But post-Prop. 8 activism has also illustrated that not all gays view their lives in the same way.

Shortly after Prop. 8 passed, an anonymous gay blogger started Gays Against Gay Marriage, arguing that same-sex couples who marry are seeking mainstream approval by mimicking straight people. Against Equality, another gay-backed group that travels and speaks out against same-sex marriage, also launched in the wake of the proposition. (It even sells "Just say no to marriage" tote bags.) Last year, and Daily Beast articles examined anti-marriage perspectives in the gay community. Gay fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld told Vice magazine in 2010 that he opposed marriage: "In the '60s they all said we had the right to the difference. And now, suddenly, they want a bourgeois life."

At home, San Francisco's long-running radical collective Gay Shame argues that same-sex marriage shouldn't be the ideal — or at least shouldn't take priority.

"Everyone should have access to the things that marriage brings to some (like healthcare)," group spokesperson Mary P. (all members go by "Mary") says in an e-mail. "We believe that extending these practices to a few more does nothing to undermine the racist, sexist, classist, trans/homophobic violence that is U.S. law. The LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] mainstream needs to stop celebrating the state and begin the work of overthrowing it."

While dissent may have hampered the momentum of the marriage-equality movement, complacency and apathy might be a bigger problem.

"I don't think a lot of the community really cares that much," says Julia Adams, wife of Rebecca Prozan, who organized the first public civil-union ceremonies in 1996. "Maybe that isn't exactly right — especially for older LGBT folks, they didn't expect it to happen in their lifetime, and so they think, 'Why be overly concerned? It will happen or it won't.'"

But Stuart Gaffney, who with his husband, John Lewis, was part of the lawsuit that legalized same-sex marriage in California in 2008, doesn't see these detractors as standing in the way of gay marriage, but as part of the conversation he and others like him helped shape.

Marriage wasn't always on the radar for Gaffney and Lewis, now among the most-recognized faces in San Francisco's marriage-equality faction. The couple resolved on Jan. 1, 2004, to get involved in the marriage fight. Their first work of activism: Lewis would attend the Freedom to Marry rally on the steps of City Hall on Feb. 12, 2004, when Mayor Gavin Newsom, who'd held the office all of six weeks, began issuing marriage licenses.

Lewis arrived at the rally and asked Molly McKay, then Equality California's field director, what the plan was.

"She said, 'You can walk right into City Hall right now and get married. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon just did," Lewis says, referring to one of San Francisco's pioneering gay-activist couples. Eagerly, he borrowed a cell phone and called Gaffney.

"It was the most urgent wedding proposal you've ever heard: 'Get to City Hall right now,'" Gaffney says. "It felt very fragile. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and what if we missed it?"

Despite being in a committed relationship for 17 years, the transformation that they felt upon being pronounced "spouses for life" was profound. "It was the first time in my life that I felt like my government was treating me as an equal human being, respecting my relationship, my love, my family, as fully worthy as any other," Gaffney says.

Those 2004 weddings — themselves a form of protest — put a public face on same-sex relationships. Television viewers nationwide saw couples dressed in tuxedos and white dresses, kissing and tossing flowers, just like in the weddings they'd seen at their local churches. Similar marriage protests followed in other parts of the country. Afterward, couples went back to their daily lives, bringing visibility and openness with them. That visibility hastened acceptance of same-sex marriage, says Verta Taylor, chair of the sociology department at UCSB and co-author of a forthcoming book, The Marrying Kind?: Debating Same-Sex Marriage within the Gay and Lesbian Movement.

This was when the marriage-equality movement was born — out of Newsom's action and the 4,037 marriage licenses that followed. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shut down the weddings and revoked marriage licenses a month later, gay newlyweds were angry — and began fighting back.

Taylor, who co-authored an award-winning research paper on the influence of San Francisco's 2004 weddings on gay activism, polled gays and found that 75 percent subsequently gave money to a marriage-equality organization; 46 percent became more "out" about their marriages; and others demonstrated, gave money to pro-gay legislators, wrote letters, or took some other action.

(She also discovered plenty of opposition among gays. Some felt that marriage would change gays by shoehorning them into traditional heterosexual roles, or that too many married couples would spoil the special community gays had cultivated for decades.)

From 2001 to 2004, public opinion on same-sex marriage barely budged. But it shifted sharply after the 2004 weddings, according to polls conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Nationwide, marriage advocacy surged from 31 percent in 2004 to 39 percent in 2008, while opposition fell from 60 percent to 51 percent. Despite the swift changes, those numbers were still a far cry from the support needed to defeat Prop. 8.

When the California Supreme Court found the state's 2000 anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, Proposition 22, unconstitutional in May 2008, it opened the floodgates for legal weddings — and for new enthusiasm within the movement. Some 18,000 same-sex couples were married in California before the November election, including many who'd hastily married in San Francisco in 2004.

After so much progress, voters' approval of Prop. 8 came like a bucket of ice water in the face. Even with growing support, it was suddenly clear that California didn't have gay couples' backs. But the state was also on the verge of a tipping point with respect to marriage equality. That's one reason the grassroots effort, with as many tools as a Swiss army knife, became so effective: Where one didn't work, another unlocked people's minds. But none proved better than good old-fashioned face time.

When activists went to places like Fresno and Modesto, it wasn't to shout, but to discuss, says Rebecca Prozan, who works in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office.

Prozan, as much as anyone, is aware of the shifting activist strategies that emerged post-Prop. 8: She organized the first public civil-union ceremonies in 1996 as Mayor Willie Brown's liaison to the LGBT community. The first 100 ceremonies were filmed in the Herbst Theatre; those videos gave the nation an early glimpse of same-sex commitment ceremonies. Hundreds of civil unions followed.

Sixteen years later, she emphasizes how a face-to-face meeting can spark larger transformations than watching something on a television screen. After Prop. 8 passed, and activists visited people in California's conservative strongholds, those conversations made a lasting impression. "You see that that kid was nice, that he didn't have horns on his head," Prozan says. Perhaps the movement's greatest success was in the activism of personal relationships.

Jessica Hopen had seen plenty of gay marriage in the media, but it wasn't until she encountered it in her everyday life that things changed.

Hopen was 20 when she converted to Mormonism to marry her Mormon boyfriend. Although she went through periods of distance from the church, she still went to temple, followed the Word of Wisdom, and tithed 10 percent of her income.

She later divorced her husband, but when she moved from Washington state to Sebastopol in the wake of Prop. 8, she sought out the local Mormon church. At the same time, she befriended a gay couple, Robert and Maben Rainwater, who had three kids, just like she did. They became close enough to drive Hopen home after a surgery and help her new husband with a backyard construction project. Their friendship made Hopen confront her stereotypes about gay men, but she still didn't think they should marry.

Last June, the Rainwaters invited her to a local production of Prop. 8 Love Stories, Brian Glenn Bryson's play crafted around interviews with same-sex couples. Those couples included Equality California's Molly McKay and her wife, and the Rainwaters. In one scene, a gay couple is portrayed by a man and a woman, and something clicked in Hopen's mind.

"It dawns on me that, 'Oh my God, they're just like me,'" Hopen says. "I had blown off the fact that my church had given $20 million towards Prop. 8. I realized, I can't ignore this anymore. This really hurts my friends. So I stopped going to church."

Hopen left the Mormon church in 2011 after explaining her feelings to her priest. She says there's still a huge hole in her life where that structure and support is missing, but she doesn't regret her choice. "It's wrong. It's not God's church," she says.

It's a significant gesture, considering that nearly $2.8 million of the $39 million backing Prop. 8 came from the Utah headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Heterosexual marriage is "at the heart of God's plan for His children," church spokesman Eric Hawkins says in an e-mail. Hawkins is untroubled by the dramatic shift in public opinion over the past four years; the church will continue to defend the idea of "traditional marriage," he writes.

For people like Hopen, that means leaving the church behind.

In the past four years, many people must have had similar changes of heart. In 2008, 39 percent of the nation supported same-sex marriage, and 51 percent opposed it, according to Pew polls. By 2012, the numbers had almost flipped; 48 percent backed same-sex marriage, while 44 percent opposed it.

In California, the shift is even more dramatic. In 2008, Field Poll reported that 51 percent of Californians supported same-sex marriage, and 42 percent opposed it. In 2012, support rose to 59 percent while the opposition shrank to 34 percent.

To some extent, the change in public opinion can be chalked up to demographics, according to Pew. Millennials, born after 1981 and known for their relative liberalism, show large numbers of same-sex marriage backers, increasing from 54 percent in 2008 to 63 percent this year. Perhaps surprisingly, 10 percent more of America's elder Silent Generation also endorsed same-sex marriage in the same period.

But while same-sex marriage is legal in six states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont — and Washington D.C., 30 states have adopted constitutional amendments banning it, and voters in nine other states have approved statutory bans.

Those laws suggest that the numbers shown by Pew and Field Poll are bogus, says Frank Schubert. Schubert is the consultant behind Prop. 8 and marriage bans in Maine and North Carolina. He's running four campaigns this fall for the National Organization for Marriage, either banning same-sex marriage or fighting marriage-equality initiatives in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state.

To date, Schubert hasn't lost a campaign. But this is the first time he's worked four at once. Volunteers and signatures have been easy to come by, but fundraising has been tough. NOM is "stretched thin" by the effort, he says.

"I don't agree there's growing support for same-sex marriage. What you see in these polls is a reflection of how questions are asked. We're seeing questions such as, 'Should same-sex marriage be legal or illegal?' That's a biased question." He also predicts that once more Millennials reach marrying age, they'll prefer heterosexual definitions of marriage.

While Schubert and NOM are sticking with the scare tactics that have worked for the past 12 years — such as claiming that children will be forced to learn about same-sex marriage in kindergarten — Equality California is testing another grassroots approach to fighting back. Lately, it's experimenting with a concept called "breakthrough conversation," in which LGBT people point out to friends and family — people who already consider themselves egalitarian — instances where they're not treating others equally.

"It's not confrontational, but if you call someone on those incidents, the likelihood is that they can be persuaded to change their attitudes and realize LGBT people are not being treated fairly," Davidson says.

But conservatives, too, have subtly altered — and complicated — their approaches.

Dan Cathy, the chief operating officer of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, made headlines when he told the Baptist Press in July that he supports the "Biblical definition of the family unit." In the subsequent furor, same-sex marriage opponents lined up for chicken sandwiches and waffle fries while LGBT groups staged "kiss-ins" at restaurants nationwide.

Officials with Chick-fil-A announced in mid-September that the company would not give further money to political or social campaigns, though they weren't specific about campaigns related to same-sex marriage. The chain would, however, continue donating to programs that "strengthen families and enrich marriages." A week later, employee Steve Cammett publicly resigned, saying the company had become "a safe place for people to hate."

In the months leading up to the 2012 election, the Republican Party reaffirmed its dedication to marriage as a "sacred contract," its code for "heterosexual." "Defending marriage against an activist judiciary" is also part of the 2012 GOP platform — a telling phrase, given the same-sex marriage cases facing the Supreme Court. However, the only speaker to mention the topic onstage during the Republican National Convention in August was Mike Huckabee.

All this pushback may be having the opposite effect. A state's act of banning same-sex marriage, paradoxically, seems to call out new advocates.

Scott Barclay, a public-policy scholar with UCLA's Williams Institute, which researches law and policy on sexual orientation, studied 13 states where voters approved same-sex marriage bans. In every case, support for LGBT causes rose immediately after such votes. Barclay attributes the effect to increased activism, as well as a kind of buyer's remorse: Legislating inequality tends to bring people off the fence.

In San Francisco, activism comes from one other, perhaps less likely, source: City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office. After each marriage-equality setback, "the emotional devastation that people felt — I'm seeing this in people's faces — it was demoralizing," he says. That prompted his office to jump into the legal fight. It's been in every battle since, from protecting San Francisco's 2004 marriages to petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear the Prop. 8 case this fall.

"Public opinion on same-sex marriage is changing faster than on any other civil-rights movement in history," says sociologist Taylor. "We think it's partly because of the movement, and the embracing of visibility strategies," such as gays coming out of the closet and onto the front page of the New York Times.

All of this has come at a price. Some gays worry that marriage has eclipsed other LGBT activism. Nearly half of those who married in San Francisco in 2004 said they stopped giving time to other causes in order to focus their attention on the marriage fight, Taylor says. Activism swallowed up parts of their lives in much the same way Donat's home became a base for the marriage fight.

But post-Prop. 8 activism is now resonating at a national level.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court has the option to hear — or decline to hear — a number of cases challenging same-sex-marriage bans. That includes the Prop. 8 case, now called Hollingsworth v. Perry, as well as several others challenging aspects of the Defense of Marriage Act — particularly Section 3, which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

The court hasn't yet announced its intentions. If it doesn't take Hollingsworth, then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' February ruling, declaring Prop. 8 unconstitutional, will stand — and same-sex couples can marry in California again. Such a ruling would only affect states where gays and lesbians could legally marry and then had the right taken away, and there aren't many.

Other wonks believe the Supreme Court is waiting until all the DOMA cases are ready — and some won't be until later this fall — before taking them at the same time. A judgment could then affect marriage nationwide. An Oct. 2 piece in the New Yorker by Jeffrey Toobin suggested the justices may also wait to see how the four marriage initiatives on ballots in November play out, which would provide a snapshot of which way the national wind is blowing. There's a precedent here: The Supreme Court didn't end bans on interracial marriage until 1967, and on homosexual sex until 2003, until after a majority of the populace had accepted them.

When President Barack Obama backed the issue in May, many proponents felt it was long overdue. For the first time, marriage equality is part of the Democratic Party's 2012 campaign platform. First Lady Michelle Obama told Democratic National Convention audiences, "If proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love, then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American dream."

Most of the DNC's speakers mentioned marriage equality in their own way. "You knew what they were talking about and it was enough," says Prozan, who has attended the past two conventions. That, combined with Obama's repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, no longer defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and support of same-sex marriage, boosted the tone of LGBT support in Charlotte, N.C.

While drawing clear lines on LGBT issues helps Obama distinguish himself from Republican candidate Mitt Romney, it's still a risky move if he wants to capture votes and delegates come November. "It's safe in San Francisco, but it's still a very divisive issue, and will continue to be until we can change the hearts and minds," Prozan says.

Gay-rights organizers agree that marriage remains an uphill battle. Equality California hoped to put ballot measures before voters in 2010 and 2012 to overturn Prop. 8, but current polls and donation levels aren't enough to ensure a slam-dunk, Davidson says. Another vote against same-sex marriage could set the movement back years, politically, culturally, and financially.

Recent public-opinion polls have led many, both in and outside the gay community, to say that legal same-sex marriage nationwide is only a matter of time. To those who have been fighting nonstop since 2004 or even longer, that's a welcome thought. For one thing, it means they can stop fighting so hard — and get back to the business of being married.

"I'm busy. My husband's coming home. This wash has to be done," Donat says. "But I have to put it down, because I have to fight. And we've been fighting for a long time."

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I am a fervent supporter of marriage equality - I was the 'best man' for my dearest friend when he married his husband, once in a 'commitment ceremony' and once at City Hall when it was legal, and they are the most committed, loving couple I know, and I"m proud that they are the godparents for my teenage sons.  Moreover, like all good Jewish mothers, I secretly hope one of my sons turns out to be gay (because he'll never replace me with another woman, and he'll help me shop!)  So the stakes in this election are high (particularly since as a woman, a Jew, and an advocate of marriage equality, I feel triply dissed by the right . . . , which is why I recorded, "It's A Scary Time To Be A Jewish Mother", the first in my series of youTube political comedy songs . . .  enjoy!


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