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Wedding March: The Reception Dinner Without the Ceremony 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014
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Before marriage was legal, building a life with someone of the same sex was like rigging a house from random boards and lawn chairs scavenged from a beach. What you built felt amazing, the place you always wanted to live. But it felt like even straight friends and relatives who loved us regarded what we'd nailed together for ourselves as playing house, out on the metaphorical edge of town.

Perry and I watched on TV, in February 2004, as Mayor Gavin Newsom declared that San Francisco had begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It all seemed very far away (we were living in El Cerrito). Anyway, we'd been married without legal sanction seven years before, at an art gallery in Chicago, in a made-up ceremony performed by a maverick almost-minister, a friend. We did our thing privately; we had to.

But after two days of news clips of same-sex couples lined up at City Hall hoping for marriage licenses, it was clear the world had shifted, and we were being called to shift with it. Perry said, "I think we should go," and next morning he took the day off and we drove across the bridge, not sure what we meant to do but knowing we had to be there, for what was being called the Winter of Love.

It was a day of confusion, walking up and down the snaking line, looking at the couples and the signs of support — some of protest, too — and feeling lifted in a way that surprised me. By the time we got in line ourselves, all the way around the block from the entrance, it was midday. We waited in the chill a couple of hours, but by the middle of the afternoon the mayor's aides were calling it off. They couldn't issue licenses for everybody in line; come back tomorrow.

We did, as the sun was rising on the wet, gray streets, but the line was already down the City Hall steps, down Van Ness and around McAllister. We took our spot, watching the lights on the TV news reporters filing their stories for the morning shows and sipping the coffee we'd stopped for. The couple in front — like us, together a long time — flew up from Long Beach. And like us, they were ordinary guys who loved each other and felt that they had to come and take a stand, literally, in the line.

All of us in line that day knew the consequences of being queer and living it, the slurs and caricatures, the subtle slights. Standing in that line felt like an act of witness by us, the lesbians and gays you never saw on TV or in movies: teachers and office managers, copywriters and full-time moms, unremarkable and quiet. If Stonewall had been a revolt of the drag queens, our Winter of Love was a revolution of the ordinary, huddled under ponchos in the February drizzle, waiting.

The guys from Long Beach gave us one of their umbrellas. I went and got sandwiches and drinks for the four of us. They showed us pictures of their condo and the dogs. We talked about vacations. The line hardly moved.

After eight hours we made it into the lobby, but not the license window. After days of lines that crept, the County Clerk's office announced a new plan before closing at 5 o'clock that day: priority numbers based on your place in line so you could go off and make an appointment online.

It was too late for the guys from Long Beach — they had to catch a plane home before the numbers got passed out. They were going to try to get married in Vancouver. "Send us an email if you guys make it," I said.

And that was it. Except, tired and disappointed, cold and hungry, Perry said maybe we should grab something before getting on the bridge. "Zuni?" It was a splurge but I thought Screw it.

Zuni's roast chicken with bread salad for two was one of those things other people always seemed to crave: food writers in town for a weekend, my epicure of a dentist, the inexhaustible reviewers of Yelp. But that day, in the late afternoon of a winter that changed San Francisco and stirred the planet, nothing seemed better than that ridiculously simple chicken hacked into pieces, brown skin receding from the blade's cuts to expose pale flesh, jumbled up with craggy bread and leaves in a sherry vinaigrette you tasted in the nose.

Comfort food respects ordinary things, offers them simply but with a sense of gravity that they couldn't achieve on their own. In our Winter of Love, that dish of roast chicken seemed to connect us to everybody in the restaurant, couples who'd been in line and those who hadn't, the waiter who smiled because he got it. We were all together in our neighborhood spot, next best place to home.

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John Birdsall

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