15 February 2005
The lobby of the County Courthouse was decorated for Valentine's Day. There were two arches wound with netting, one with pink lights shining, the other with paper bells. One had a sign saying "wedding chapel 1" the other "wedding chapel 2." In front of the "chapels" was a circle of several rows of chairs.
I was there for a wedding, a wedding we all knew would not take place.
Every Valentine's Day for the past many years, Ellen and Shelly have gone to the registrar's office to ask for a marriage license. Every year they are told that they can't have one.
This year was particularly poignant. It was their "anniversary." They had been married by Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco a year ago, only to have their marriage nullified by the courts six months later. So instead of celebrating their anniversary, they were back once again asking to be married.
Everyone knew the drill.
After all the reporters were assembled, Ellen and Shelly went in to the registrar's office to ask for a license. Yolo County Registrar Freddie Oakley told them once again that it was with great regret that she could not give them one, that she felt they should have the legal right to be married, but that her hands were tied by the laws of the state of California. There were pretty flowers decorating the office, and a "happy Valentine's Day" banner hung overhead.
A man and woman, holding hands, a big smile on their faces, walked in to the office and stood at the next clerk's desk. A few minutes later they walked out, still smiling, papers in hand.
I watched these two dedicated women, who have been trying for 31 years to be permitted to legally marry one another. Even though we knew that this was a symbolic gesture, I found that I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. "I can't be in there," another woman told me. "It makes me cry."
While the two grandmothers who had devoted their lives to each other tried once again to make the commitment legal, there were demonstrations in Sacramento and up in the foothills in Placerville with people holding placards with things about sin and abomination and the Bible written on them.
The women weren't asking for any religious blessing to their commitment. They were asking for legal recognition that they had made this lifelong commitment to each other, had raised a family together, and wished to be granted the same legal rights and privileges (and penalties!) that every other married couple received.
But it was not to be.
After Freddie turned them down, she was interviewed by the media and Ellen and Shelly were interviewed by the media.
County supervisor Mariko Yamado arrived and expressed her disappointment and her indignation that Ellen and Shelly were unable to marry. She said she believed that it was their right to have their union be legally recognized. She offered to preside at a brief ceremony where the couples who had, by this time, arrived to join Ellen and Shelly could repeat the vows that they took a year ago in San Francisco.
We all went downstairs to stand around one of those wedding "chapels." The County Recorder left her office and came with us, to participate in the ceremony that she wished she could legally sanction.
We all stood around to be supportive, many of us surprised at how emotional we were. Yamada went through the marriage ceremony, ending with saying sadly that she could not legally marry them, but that in the eyes of those standing around they were definitely married. I took pictures and didn't realize until I came home to preview them that Shelly had tears streaming down her face.
I marveled that these woman can keep coming back time and time and time again to fight for what they know is their legal right, despite hitting a brick wall every time.
Recorder Freddy Oakley told a reporter that she believed that this will all come to pass some day, and that when that day comes, she will gladly give the couple the license without the requisite licensing fee.
When I got ready to leave, Ellen thanked me for coming.
"That's OK," I said. "I'll come to all of your weddings. Let me know when the next one is.
PHOTO OF THE DAY