For gay and lesbian couples who have been waiting forever for the right to legally marry, the video clips of happy queer newlyweds bounding out of San Francisco City Hall with marriage licenses have been quite a sight. If San Francisco can do it, many Southern California gays and lesbians ask, why isn’t the city of West Hollywood (with a gay mayor and a gay majority on its City Council) lining up couples on Santa Monica Boulevard for nuptials?
West Hollywood Mayor Jeff Prang has been getting an earful from members of the greater lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community, who are demanding West Hollywood–issued, same-sex marriage licenses right here, right now. “It started off as kind of amusing when I got the first e-mail or two asking why the West Hollywood mayor is not following the lead of San Francisco’s mayor,” Prang said. “It has now become somewhat of a constant stream of
e-mails, some of them quite nasty, angry, really unpleasant.”
One steamed correspondent e-mailed Prang: “Seems only straight mayors have the balls to grant marriage licenses to gay couples. Where are the spineless mayors of WeHo and Palm Springs? (No, domestic partnerships are not marriages.) You’re pathetic!”
“Will you get up off your ass and start issuing gay marriage licenses to all the loving, hard-working gay couples in West Hollywood while you’ve got the momentum,” implored another. “The mayor of San Francisco is a hero. What have you done for gay civil rights? Don’t be a coward. You will never get re-elected if you blow this opportunity.”
One constituent, a travel agent, wrote to say a gay travel group was starting an online petition encouraging people to boycott about a dozen gay meccas, including West Hollywood, as punishment for failing to issue licenses. Prang, one of only 200 or so out elected officials in the country, isn’t used to being called a foot-dragger on the issue of LGBT rights. But in a world where same-sex marriage has gone from a pie-in-the-sky hypothetical to legal reality in a matter of weeks, social conservatives aren’t the only group taken aback by government-
sanctioned his-and-his wedding cakes.
In response Prang has been e-mailing back, trying to explain why he’s not a queer Uncle Tom. First off, Prang argues, San Francisco is unique — it is the only county and city in California to share the same borders, making Mayor Gavin Newsom not only mayor of San Francisco but also its chief county executive. This gives Newsom powers in San Francisco that have to be shared between the Board of Supervisors and the mayors of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County. And since only counties in California are authorized to issue marriage licenses, Newsom is in a singular position that rarely gets explained in all that cable-news coverage from San Francisco City Hall.
“In the pockets around the country, New York, New Mexico, Oregon, where the licenses are being issued, they are being issued by those elected and appointed officials who have always had the authority to issue a marriage license because of their own municipal government setup,” explained West Hollywood Mayor pro tem John Duran, who is also gay. “We unfortunately are not in that position. That doesn’t mean we are not trying.”
Prang and Duran note West Hollywood passed a resolution supporting Newsom, and urged the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to follow Newsom’s lead. So far that’s gone nowhere, but that’s not much of a surprise to Prang, since Newsom took a gutsy stand that’s easier to make when you’re the only one making the call. Namely, Newsom has interpreted the state Constitution’s equal-protection provision as overriding Proposition 22, the voter-approved California Defense of Marriage Act, which many argue defines marriage as a legal union reserved for one man and one woman. In theory, the five L.A. County Supervisors could direct their county clerk here to do the same thing. “I suspect they won’t,” Prang said, “but we, nevertheless, asked them to do so.”
Prang and Duran didn’t stop there. They asked L.A. County to deputize them so they could issue licenses, once again to no avail. They also got in touch with San Francisco, to see if their assessor would allow them to issue marriage licenses from the Bay Area. “There did not appear to be anything in state law that would prohibit that act, nor did there seem to be any precedent that would allow it, because it has never come up before,” Duran said, but San Francisco didn’t want to complicate its legal arguments with the state by issuing inter-county licenses.
West Hollywood could just start issuing its own same-sex marriage licenses, and then sue the state when some government agency decided not to honor them. But LGBT legal-rights groups discouraged West Hollywood from doing that, since it may jeopardize one of three cases currently working their way through the state courts challenging California’s straights-only marriage laws.
This leaves Duran and Prang in the position of politicians in cities like Seattle and San Jose, which have already announced they will offer any same-sex couple holding a marriage license all the city benefits offered to other marrieds. West Hollywood could act as soon as Monday, March 15. The next step will be looking at West Hollywood’s Equal Benefits Ordinance, to make sure any third party that contracts with the city treats same-sex married couples the same way.
Still, that hasn’t slowed down the stream of e-mails, and even a polite response back from Prang hasn’t mollified the most emotional same-sex marrying wannabes. “The bottom line is that it’s still the straight mayors who are stepping up to the plate and fighting our battle for us,” one respondent wrote back to Prang.
“I’m not surprised that people would inquire about West Hollywood’s actions,” Prang said. “I’m a little surprised by the emotions being directed at our city, and against me, which is misplaced. We’re doing everything and have done everything we could possibly do for a small city. And we’re trying to stay out in front of this one.”