Marriage Equality

santa clara county first gay marriages

Marriage Equality

The hurdle for people to marry someone of the same gender always seemed too high to ever be a reality. Throughout the 1990s when there was more public discussion of the idea, polls in California and throughout the country showed high levels of opposition—too high to be obtainable. One by one, states were passing constitutional amendments forbidding same-gender marriages. Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act on Sept. 21, 1996, prohibiting any federal recognition of the marriages. California passed Proposition 22—the Defense of Marriage Act—in 2000 with 61% of the vote.

The matter seemed pretty much closed. States and the federal government forbade it, and the public was against it.

Then an unexplainable miracle happened that started the country on path to allow gay marriages: On February 12, 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom started allowing marriage licenses to be issued in San Francisco. The world stopped turning for a moment. It was unbelievably big news. Thousands of same-gender couples lined the blocks around City Hall. There was a media frenzy. It was clear from the start that the marriages were illegal, but who cared?

The hurdle to marriage was suddenly being lowered as people got used to the idea of same-sex couples and heard their stories of love and commitment. Many straight people had good friends who were in same-sex relationships who began showing support. Family members also began to voice support. Same states like Vermont (yeah Howard Dean!) and countries (yeah Canada!) began to allow it, and couples flew to those states to get a marriage license. All of sudden, states who didn’t permit these marriages had residents who were in them.

Below is a timeline of the one-step forward, two-steps backward in the struggle for marriage equality. Many great books are written on the subject for those who want to know all the details. But it is safe to say the impossible happened because of the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ people who were honest about who they were and whom they loved, with the help of all their allies.

But first, hear are the words of California Supreme Court Justice Ronald George writing for the majority opinion striking down Prop. 22:

The ability of an individual to join in a committed, long-term, officially recognized family relationship with the person of his or her choice is often of crucial significance to the individual’s happiness and well-being. The legal commitment to long-term mutual emotional and economic support that is an integral part of an officially recognized marriage relationship provides an individual with the ability to invest in and rely upon a loving relationship with another adult in a way that may be crucial to the individual’s development as a person and achievement of his or her full potential.

  • March 7, 2000. California voters approve Proposition 22, the Defense of Marriage Act, by 61%. State statute now bars same-sex marriage in California.
  • February 12, 2004. Mayor Gavin Newsom begins allowing marriage licenses to be issued in San Francisco until March 11. Thousands of couples line up in front of city hall. The California Supreme Court rules the licenses are void on August 12.
  • March 4, 2004. San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales and Councilmember Ken Yeager propose an ordinance that the city recognize all marriages certified by other jurisdictions as basis for providing equal benefits for spouses and partners. The ordinance passes but prompts talk of recalling both officials.
  • May 15, 2008. California Supreme Court strikes down Prop. 22; licenses can begin being issued June 16 (Sunday).
  • June 2, 2008. Opponents of gay marriage collect enough signatures to place Prop. 8 on the ballot which would enshrine the one-man, one-woman marriage doctrine into the California constitution. Election set for November 4.
  • June 17, 2008. County Supervisor Yeager performs first weddings of two men and two women at the County Administrative Building as soon as it opens at 8 a.m.
  • November 3, 2008. As worry seeps in that Prop. 8 will pass and the opportunity to marry may end, a number of same-sex couples hurry to get married at the County Building.
  • November 4, 2008. California voters pass Prop. 8. The marriage window closes. Santa Clara County files a lawsuit with San Francisco and Los Angeles that petitions the California Supreme Court to direct State officials from enforcing it.
  • January 10, 2009. In a reaction to the passage of Prop. 8, Marriage Equality Silicon Valley is formed to encourage individuals to come out and let straight friends know that same-sex love and relationships are no different than those in straight society.
  • August 4, 2010. Federal Court Judge Vaughn Walker rules in Perry v Schwarzenegger that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional “under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses” and prohibited its enforcement. The decision is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • February 7, 2012. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms Judge Walker’s decision in Perry that overturned Prop. 8. Case is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • June 26, 2013. U.S. Supreme Court issues a 5-4 decision in United States v Windsor, ruling that DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) is unconstitutional, thus allowing married same-sex couples the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples.
  • June 26, 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hollingsworth v Perry leaves Walker’s 2010 ruling as the final decision on Proposition 8; same-gender marriage returns to California.
  • July 1, 2013. Santa Clara County prepares for high demand of marriage licenses as same-sex marriages return after ending in November 2008. Clerk-Recorder employees are deputized to perform marriages. A new Express Marriage Ceremony Service window is created, where walk-in couples can purchase a license to have their ceremony performed.
  • July 5, 2013. More people in Santa Clara County apply for marriage licenses than on any other day ever. Supervisor Yeager marries 27 couples in his office throughout the day.
  • June 26, 2015. U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v Hodges allows nationwide same-gender marriages to proceed; Rainbow flag is raised in celebration; County Executive Jeff Smith, after consultation with Supervisor Yeager, orders the flag flown every workday.

If you would like to watch the first ceremonies in Santa Clara County, click here