Noe Valley Voice March 2004

Noe Valleyans Among Gay Marriage Pioneers

By Liz Highleyman

Several Noe Valleyans were at the forefront of last month's historic wave of same-sex marriages in the city.

Duncan Street residents Phyllis Lyon, 79, and Del Martin, 83, were the first couple to be legally wed on Feb. 12, the day Mayor Gavin Newsom directed city officials to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex partners.

Lyon and Martin founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation's first lesbian rights organization, in 1955--the same year they moved to Noe Valley. Plans for the small City Hall ceremony, performed by City Assessor-Recorder Mabel Teng, were kept under wraps to avoid a legal challenge by opponents of gay marriage.

"It doesn't seem that different being married, since we've been together 51 years," Lyon told the Voice. "I thought it would happen sometime, but that we wouldn't see it. We're very honored to be chosen to be the first."

Over Valentine's Day weekend, the line of couples waiting for licenses at City Hall--including many people from other cities, states, and countries--wound its way around the block. Some even camped out overnight in the rain to ensure their spots. By the end of February, more than 3,400 same-sex couples had tied the knot.

District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty was among the civic and religious leaders officiating at some of the many ceremonies conducted in every spare nook and cranny of City Hall. By Feb. 20, he said, he had performed "one hundred and counting."

"People throughout the world have seen the passion for marriage equality," Dufty told the Voice. "There will be fits and starts, as there were in the civil rights movement, but what has been unleashed here is unstoppable."

Another Noe Valley local on the front lines was Rev. Karen Oliveto, pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church at Sanchez and Clipper streets. The day Newsom gave the go-ahead, Oliveto performed her first ceremony at City Hall for Michael Eaton and Sean Higgins. The following Sunday, she married Dan Johnson and Bill Hinson during a regular worship service--the first same-sex marriage conducted in a Methodist church sanctuary.

Oliveto learned later that week that a complaint had been filed against her for "disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church." While the Methodists officially ban same-sex holy unions, there is no explicit policy against same-sex marriages. "I am not doing a holy union," Oliveto emphasized. "I am doing a legal gay marriage."

A spokeswoman for Bishop Beverly Shamana, who presides over the California-Nevada United Methodist Conference, told the Voice that individual disciplinary proceedings are confidential and the bishop therefore could not comments on details of the case.

If found guilty of a church-defined offense, Oliveto could be stripped of her credentials, but she stands by her actions. At a Feb. 22 press conference, more than 100 members of Bethany and other United Methodist congregations from around the Bay Area--and as far away as Davis--gathered at the church to affirm their support for the minister.

"We need all the love in the world we can get," Oliveto told the Voice, "and the church should always stand against hate, not against love."

A few blocks north of Bethany, Rev. Keenan Kelsey, pastor of the Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church, said that while she had done many same-sex holy unions over the years, she had yet to sign one of the city's new marriage certificates. But, she said, she would perform a same-sex wedding if asked. "We support same-sex marriage," she said. "We believe covenant love is covenant love."

The fate of thousands of newlywed couples now rests in the hands of the courts. On Feb. 13, two groups opposing same-sex marriage filed separate lawsuits demanding that the city stop giving out licenses, but judges declined to issue immediate restraining orders. Days later, San Francisco officials filed their own suit, claiming that a state law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman is unconstitutional because it denies same-sex couples equal rights. Attorney General Bill Lockyer has asked the state Supreme Court to issue a quick ruling on the matter, saying he believes the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses violates California law.

"We're in the midst of major social change in the United States, and I feel privileged to be a part of it," said District 13 Assemblyman and Noe Valley resident Mark Leno, who is sponsoring a bill amending state law to allow same-sex marriages. "The question is not will we prevail, but when." m