Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom
Paul Wellman (file)

San Francisco sweltered in record-high 94-degree temperatures on May 15, 2008, as Mayor Gavin Newsom stood outside City Hall and delivered a hotheaded message to conservative foes of his gay marriage crusade.

On that scorching Thursday afternoon, Newsom and a boisterous crowd of supporters reveled in a state Supreme Court decision that upheld his hugely controversial move, undertaken four years earlier, to allow gays to wed in the city.

Jerry Roberts

“As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation,” crowed the 40-year-old Democratic mayor. “It’s inevitable. This door’s wide open now. It’s going to happen ​— ​whether you like it or not.”

No one knew it at the time, but the celebration was decidedly premature. Not only would the same-sex-marriage issue drag through courts for seven more years, but also Newsom’s boastful words would soon backfire on the movement.

Within a few months, his last sentence, delivered with a smirk, would be featured in an iconic, effective TV ad for Proposition 8, a measure sponsored by the conservatives Newsom had taunted, which for a time banned gay unions in California.

Although state and federal judges later cast Prop. 8 aside, not until last week’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision was the right of gays to marry anywhere in the nation secured ​— ​and Newsom, now Lieutenant Governor, finally vindicated.

“This cause for celebration closes one chapter of civil-right injustices enforced by state laws,” he said after the new ruling. “To deny the value of any love devalues all love.”

THE ROAD TO VICTORY: The Supreme Court’s stamp of approval mirrored what, by any measure, was an extraordinarily swift transformation of public opinion, as the notion of gay marriage moved from the margins to the political mainstream.

It’s worth recalling that in 2000, voters, by a nearly two-to-one margin, approved Proposition 22, a formal ban which enshrined in state statute these words: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Eight years later, passage of Prop. 8 upheld that sentiment, but by the far narrower margin of 52 to 48 percent. Exit polls showed then that it won largely because of overwhelming support from those who said they attend church regularly; still, gay marriage advocates found reason for optimism, in data showing younger voters opposed Prop. 8, 61 to 39 percent.

As civil rights lawyers in California fought to overturn Prop. 8, other activists began to win legal and political battles against bans in one state after another; within just a few years, 37 states and the District of Columbia granted gays the right to marry.

One key reason: Newsom’s February 2004 decision to perform gay weddings in San Francisco brought the issue out of the closet, along with the Massachusetts supreme court’s decision allowing the practice the same year. Amid high-profile media coverage, more people in the country began to recognize and accept that many neighbors, friends, and family members were gay; a 2010 CBS News poll reported that 77 percent of Americans knew someone who was lesbian or gay, a number that surely grew since then.

“Gays, lesbians ​— ​and those 77 percent who know them ​— ​are feeling their power today,” Hank Plante, an Emmy Award–winning television political reporter who’s covered the gay movement for decades, wrote this week, recalling that survey. “What was once called ‘The love that dare not speak its name,’ at Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial, today won’t keep its mouth shut.”

THE VIEW TO 2018: As a political matter, the Supreme Court’s historic decision is expected to bolster Newsom, already viewed by liberals as a hero, and his nascent 2018 campaign for governor.

He has said that his resolve to jump-start the gay-marriage effort was motivated by George W. Bush’s State of the Union address a month before, when the president called for a U.S. constitutional amendment restricting the right to marry to heterosexuals.

However, many Democrats in 2004 blamed Newsom for presidential candidate John Kerry’s narrow loss in Ohio, which cost the party the White House, as a state anti-gay-marriage initiative boosted turnout among religious conservatives, who overwhelmingly backed Bush.

Celebrating last week, Newsom released a statement that was more modest and measured than his in-your-face comments of 11 years ago. In it, he quoted George Washington: “We have abundant reason to rejoice that, in this land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition.”


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