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.
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.