As marriage battle looms, California gays look back

by Amanda Beck

Associated Press

Thursday February 14, 2008

They were playing in a movie, but marchers who gathered in San Francisco last week to recreate a 1970s gay rights protest were not just acting.

Hundreds of people came to the Castro district, long favored by homosexual residents, to be extras in a movie that stars actor Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the country's first prominent openly gay leader, who won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

As much as on the past, the movie's marchers -- real-life members and supporters of San Francisco's famously strong gay community -- were focused on an upcoming California court decision that may set a national precedent on the legality of gay marriage.

The case started four years ago this week when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom suddenly allowed same-sex couples to marry. A court halted the weddings after a month, and the California Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case next month. A decision is expected by June 2.

One of the couples in the lawsuit who were extras in the filming on Friday said they thought of Milk, who was assassinated, when they exchanged vows four years ago in City Hall.

"Our thoughts turned to him, because we knew that he gave his life, 30 years earlier, for that same right in that same building," said Stuart Gaffney, 45.

Added partner John Lewis, 49: the Milk-inspired mantra has evolved from "It's OK to be gay," to "It's OK to be a gay family."

San Francisco is internationally known for its acceptance of gays into the mainstream and for enacting legal protections for gay residents and workers. Milk personified the shift of San Francisco's gay life from the shadows of night trysts to the daylight of a normal neighborhood.

"Before Harvey, our only role model was Liberace," said Hank Wilson, 60, who marched with Milk. "He echoed the desire of thousands of people who migrated to the Castro because we wanted to live more open, normal lives."

Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in their City Hall offices by disgruntled former political colleague Dan White in 1978.


The trajectory of the battle for gay rights from Milk's era to today was on the minds of the movie extras for "Milk." If the upcoming California court ruling legalizes gay marriage, many supporters will see it as an epic victory and the climax of the work that Milk began.

"This is the culmination of the defining civil rights struggle of our time," said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who will argue the case on March 4. "It is also the natural progression of what Harvey Milk advocated -- for gay people to be out and kicking down doors."

The case before the California Supreme Court is considered the most significant of many across the country partly because California is the most populous state and home to at least 100,000 same-sex couples, more than any other state.

"Marriage is the ultimate expression of what Harvey Milk proclaimed, which is that gay people shouldn't apologize for who we are but that we should celebrate it and live fully," said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, a gay and lesbian advocacy group.

Opponents see same-sex marriage an immoral attack on traditional family life. Soon after San Francisco started marrying gays, President George W. Bush sought a constitutional amendment to define marriage as uniting only men and women.

Mayor Newsom, who remains very popular in San Francisco partially because of his fight for gay marriage, on Wednesday night marks the fourth anniversary of the thousands of gay weddings by attending a documentary movie on the topic.

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