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Celebration, then strategizing in Calif.

Gays look to Mass. in battle to keep marriage rights

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - When the California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage came down Thursday morning, a deafening cheer went up in many places across this city. But by Friday evening, as the after-work crowd nursed drinks at the Twin Peaks Tavern in the Castro, a decidedly more subdued mood was settling in.

In fact, it took only a few hours for the decision to slip into the past tense, replaced in many ways by the stark prospect that same-sex marriage could be banned again by voters in November.

"I wish it felt like a huge leap forward, but it's feeling more like one of those up-and-down roller coasters - and it's a shame that it has to be that way," said Nathan Draper, 40, a middle school science and health teacher, who was drinking a beer at the Twins Peaks. "It's frustrating, because we're talking about something so basic: equality."

This city, which has seen more than its share of battles over gay rights, is feeling whipsawed. Amid the revelry over the landmark victory and the hope for sweeping social change, an anxious undercurrent swept through neighborhoods as opponents pushed for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Immediately, the talk went from the decision rendered Thursday to the actions needed to protect it over the next many months - fund-raising, door-knocking, and old-fashioned politicking.

"The Supreme Court decision makes us happy and makes us breathe a little easier," said Rebecca Meece, 32, who was sipping coffee over a book yesterday at the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center. "But I don't think anyone expects it to be the end of the battle. It's really just the beginning."

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who expressed delight over the court decision, said he is planning to draw upon the expertise, experience, and fund-raising lists of gay-rights activists in Massachusetts for what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar battle over the amendment. He said he regularly points to Massachusetts as a reason that Californians should not fear same-sex marriage.

"In Massachusetts, the sky didn't fall in," and "the institution of marriage didn't end," for heterosexual couples, Newsom said yesterday in a telephone interview. "We have a good chance" of defeating the amendment, he said, but "it's going to be a tough campaign."

In Massachusetts, gay-rights activists persuaded some opponents of same-sex marriage in the Legislature to change their minds by talking to the lawmakers one-on-one about their lives. Activists here said they planned to mount a similar campaign on a broader scale, by going door to door to talk to voters in more conservative communities across California.

"What we've seen in the example of Massachusetts is personalize, personalize, personalize," said Stuart Gaffney, 45, who, with his partner, John Lewis, was a plaintiff in the California case. "When this issue is personalized, people understand it's about our common humanity and about our shared desire to marry the person you love. And when it's more abstract, that works against us."

Many watersheds in gay history have taken place in San Francisco: the opening of its first gay bars in the '20s and '30s; the rise of a gay rights movement in the '60s; the election of Harvey Milk in 1977 as its first openly gay city supervisor, followed by his assassination in 1978.

The court ruling was yet another turning point, many here said, a seismic shift that could force other states to legalize same-sex marriage, as out-of-state couples come to California to wed and return home. Massachusetts law forbids anyone from marrying in the state if the union would not be valid in the person's home state, but California has no such restriction.

"As our mayor said, California is going to change the world," said Denis Johns, 64, a manager at an Internet startup company who was drinking at Twin Peaks with his partner of 10 years, Tom Sheppard, 56.

The decision is supposed to take effect in 30 days, but conservative activists are taking a two-pronged approach to stop it: They are pushing the amendment and they are planning to ask the courts to delay marriages until after November so voters can first weigh in on the measure.

The amendment, advocates on both sides said, stands a better chance of passing than a similar one that the Massachusetts Legislature killed last June before it ever got to voters. Unlike constitutional amendments in Massa- chusetts, which require two rounds of legislative approval and a majority of voters, those in California are significantly simpler. The process here requires that activists gather 700,000 signatures to put an amendment on the ballot. Once on the ballot, it is approved with a simple majority.

Same-sex marriage opponents have garnered more than a million signatures, which are being certified. The measure is expected to be on the ballot this November.

"Right now the strategy will be to make sure that people have the last word on marriage, and not judges," said Mathew D. Staver, dean of the law school at Liberty University, a fundamentalist Baptist institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.

Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families in Sacramento, said the decision was already galvanizing supporters to push for the amendment. Thomasson helped spearhead the 2000 voter-approved law to ban gay marriage that the court struck down Thursday.

"This is not just an attack upon marriage, it's an attack upon their vote," Thomasson said yesterday. "Now, it's in your face, and this will be seen as a personal attack on the values they hold dear."

Friday night in the Castro, the heart of this city's gay community, they were still trying to savor the victory as they girded for the battle ahead. As Gaffney and Lewis walked down 18th Street, strangers stopped to thank them for waging the four-year court fight. The couple posed for a photo with another couple, Amos and Mickey Lim, outside Magnet, a gay men's health center, which had a movie-style marquee bearing the message "Gay Marriage Legal in California. Wow!"

"Everybody knows there's a fight to fight on Monday," Mickey Lim said. "But let's celebrate tonight and tomorrow and do battle the next day."

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